Everyone wants their trash, recyclables and yard waste collected as quickly as possible. We put it on the curb in the morning and want it gone before we return home at night. But most garbagemen have a different dream. They'd like to run their trucks late at night and early in the morning when the streets are empty. In the wee hours, they could collect quickly and safely, without worrying about crowded streets. Their trucks would burn less gas and emit fewer pollutants because routes run more efficiently on empty streets. Life would be good.
This, of course, is not the normal way that garbage and recycling are collected. Most local governments restrict garbage and recycling collection to a period that usually starts at about 6 or 7 a.m. and runs for 12 to 16 hours. Then the trucks are required to vacate the streets.
In almost all cases, these hours-of-operation restrictions are imposed to ensure quiet nights. The fact that our trucks are on the street at the same time as school and transit buses, pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and other trucks is beside the point. The fact that our trucks add to traffic congestion, burn more fuel and produce more emissions because of that congestion is irrelevant. Even the greenest politician will sacrifice the environment when a constituent complains of noise.
Which is why I like Jersey City, Toronto and a few other towns. In Jersey City, residential trash is collected between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The city switched to this schedule several years ago in order to get trucks off the streets during daytime hours.
At first, residents were hesitant to accept the change, but once the system got underway they quickly realized the advantages of no trucks on the street during the day. The city has had few noise complaints. When the neighboring town of Union City switched to nighttime collection last December, city officials estimated savings at $1.92 million over the next five years.
In Toronto, trash is collected at night from residential units that are above commercial establishments and from houses located on main roads. Toronto, of course, is a city with a reputation for almost overbearing civility, yet nighttime collection is part of the city's fabric. Nighttime collection of commercial accounts in some of the larger Northeastern cities is also fairly common and works effectively to reduce daytime road congestion.
Unfortunately, these cities, and a handful of others, are the exception. Some cities go the opposite direction with even more restrictive operating hours. One New Jersey suburb unsuccessfully tried to limit garbage collection to between noon and 5 p.m.
Aside from making a garbageman's day easier, why does this matter? Because President Obama recently signed an executive order directing the EPA and the Department of Transportation to find ways to increase fuel efficiency and to lower greenhouse gas emissions for heavy duty trucks. The good news is that research done by the feds already shows that garbage and recycling trucks are different from other heavy duty trucks and will require different solutions.
Who knows, one of those could be collecting garbage and recyclables when the streets are empty and trucks can operate more efficiently. Maybe climate change will lead to some sweet sounds coming down from Washington for garbagemen and recyclers dreaming of the night shift.
Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.