A Frank Approach

WHEN TIMES ARE TOUGH, communities facing budget shortfalls often are forced to scrutinize public services more carefully. However, cities and counties across the nation also are proving that it pays to find creative ways to manage trash.

Managing the waste stream admittedly incurs huge costs. And large city waste budgets, because they serve larger populations, generally are hit the hardest when the U.S. economy weakens.

In what perhaps is the industry's most publicized example, New York was forced to scrap glass and plastics recycling in 2002 to cut $40 million from the budget. Atlanta also imposed service reductions and laid off sanitation workers when faced with a shrinking budget.

But not everyone has a sob story about doing more with less. To increase recycling, for instance, Denver has created a plan to inexpensively increase its recycling rate through a new lottery. Similar to the Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes, the city randomly selects one household that diligently follows program rules each week to win $100. The money rewards do-gooders and publicizes recycling's benefits.

In another example, sponsors of Texas' Trash-Off lured participants to a local Keep America Beautiful program by providing a hot dog lunch, among other awards. After receiving a garbage bag, volunteers scoured neighborhoods for debris, and then happily swapped their litter collections for food.

Weenies for waste may not be the answer to keep every cash-strapped community from cutting jobs or trimming their waste services. It obviously takes more than cash-for-trash programs to keep garbage flowing. However, incentives can play a vital role in heightening waste's visibility among local citizens.

People generally like to forget about trash once it's tossed on the curb. But as communities weigh whether to reduce operations, perhaps officials should urge people to think about what they put into the garbage can to begin with.

When New York placed its moratorium on less-marketable commodities, recycling advocates criticized the decision, saying residents were not given enough information about what to recycle or program changes. Now, at press time, and less than a year later, the city is facing more budget cuts and contemplating whether to reduce trash pickups and its workforce. City Council members also are questioning whether suspending recycling saved the city the amount they anticipated.

Unfortunately, with war and uncertainty about the economy, waste and any accompanying problems are not going away anytime soon. So perhaps it's time to raise the public's consciousness and get those creative waste juices flowing to find long-term solutions.

The author is the editor of Waste Age