Quick, which is hte least expensive: natural gas, heating oil, electricity, cell phone service, cable TV or your local trash service? The answer, of course, is your local garbage and recycling collection. On average, residential trash collection costs between $12 and $20 per month. Even if you are at the high end of that average, you will be paying twice as much for cable TV, two and a half times as much for your basic cell phone service and far more for the other services. If you were to pay UPS or FedEx to ship a bag of your trash to the local landfill, they'd charge you more than $20 for the one bag. Just think how much they would charge you for a month's worth of trash.
I got to thinking about this the other day after I read a few stories about local governments and trash fees. One involved a town council in Massachusetts that decided to end its annual $180 trash collection fee. Instead, the council planned to use tax money from the town's general fund to pay for garbage collection. The council members who voted to end the fee failed to disclose what cuts they would make in other programs to pay for trash collection. Some, however, opined that they could just require their 35,000 residents to haul their trash to the local transfer station. I don't know how they planned to fund the transfer station or their disposal costs. Maybe they are looking for a free landfill.
Not directly charging taxpayers for garbage collection isn't uncommon. One city is even prevented from doing this by a local ordinance. In 1919, San Diego taxpayers were upset that the city was making money by selling its garbage to pig farmers. They rose up in righteous indignation and passed the “People's Ordinance,” forbidding the city from charging them for garbage collection. Since the People's Ordinance only applies to single-family housing, San Diego continues to happily charge multi-family housing and condo owners for garbage collection.
San Diego and many other cities use their general fund to pay for their solid waste and recycling costs. After all, garbage may be free but somebody's got to pay for it. But when the money comes from the general fund, no one knows what his or her individual share is.
Several times a week, I read online newspaper stories about local trash collection costs. In towns that have contracts for trash collection, those per household charges are approved by the town council and printed in the local paper. As a result, those taxpayers know exactly what they are paying.
Price signals are important. They allow us to compare products. While price shouldn't be the only reason for buying a service or product, it will always be an important consideration. Hiding the cost of garbage and recycling collection in the general fund makes it impossible for taxpayers to make an informed decision about the cost of this service and the value they are receiving.
For the same reason, advanced recycling fees that consumers see in the purchase price for electronics products make more sense than so-called manufacturers responsibility systems that hide the cost of recycling. When individual consumers are paying the fees, they know what the real cost of recycling is. In a free economy, transparency and openness always trump secrecy and hidden costs.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.