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Letter: South End Looks Like a Dump on Trash Day

Robert Yarbrough, a South End resident, writes about his take on trash day in Boston.

Dear Editor:

Another trash day, and Boston looks like a dump. Bags are ripped open 
for 5 cents, and all trash types are strewn about the streets.

According to the City's FY12 budget, trash removal costs over $40 
million a year. $40 million for this? I only generate one bag, if 
that!

The municipally controlled system is broken. Just look around. It 
doesn't have to be this way.

If we let the same free market that made the iPhone solve our 
problems, who knows what could happen?

We could request pickups using smartphones! Companies could place 
disposals on streets that are accessible 24/7 with a key fob! 
Household trash cans could automatically request pickups!

Work an odd schedule? Dispose on demand. Generate one bag? Pay 
less. Generate a lot? Pay more. Problems solved.

Of course, “illegal” dumping wouldn't disappear. But, those people 
could be ticketed instead of taxpayers that place a bag on the street 
30 minutes “too early” or do not use a bag emblazoned with the Mayor's 
name. That law is coming, just wait.

The key is to pay for what is used. A powerful incentive that 
guarantees the best services, and the cleanest city, for everyone.

Thank you, 
Robert Yarbrough 
South End
Boston, MA

JV Andrade August 29, 2012 at 12:19 PM
The reason that Boston trash looks like a mess is the sheer amount of trash that is produced in a area the density of the South End. This isn't the 'burbs where you only have 3 or 4 families on on a side of the street in a block; here, we have 100 or more units on that same side of the street in a block. There is no comparison. To say that the trash system is broken is a vast overstatement of the problem. And the solutions proposed are unworkable and unrealistic. Trash pickup on demand? Are you kidding me? That would be such an inefficient use of labor for the contractor that it would increase the price dramatically. 40 million would look like a bargain. Place group disposals in the streets? Can you imagine how big those would be? The visual impact would be far greater than the current trash bags. The treatment would be worse than the disease. And how often would that get picked up? How long before that container overflows? Pay by weight? Come on. And who is going to weigh each bag, box or item to dispose? I guess that's OK for those who "only generate one bag, if that", but most people do not live alone. For a family of 4, that's more like 3 bags, not just one. Paying for what is used is not the solution to the problem of too much trash in the city. "Too much trash" is a byproduct of city density. Saying that the "free market" will solve the problem has become a panacea to some. Aren't we are already paying a contractor to do this now?
Roxxma August 29, 2012 at 01:42 PM
I think he's only throwing out ideas for the purpose of discussion. Not all ideas are bad ones or unworkable. Centralized recycling bins are in use in cities all over Europe (most notably, Germany) where each neighborhood (or street for that matter) has a portable recycling center. Neighbors throw in glass, cans and paper in to respective bins and when they are full, they are trucked away and replaced with an empty bin. The bins are much smaller than a dumpster, but larger than a street trash can. Something like this might work in the South End, and may help in curbing litter, as a large cause of litter in the neighborhood is the result of can collectors ripping or leaving open bags in their search for depositable bottles and cans.
jon August 29, 2012 at 03:40 PM
The main problem are the people that rip the bags open for cans. Does the Mayor have a plan to address this? Is it taboo to talk about this? They make a mess, and dont even attempt to clean it up. I bag up my trash the right way, only to find it all over the street when I come home. Address the real problem. Its OK to talk about it.....
Timothy Crawford August 29, 2012 at 04:06 PM
As long as you have union labor nothing will change! A free market could be a good start Robert, but the unions keep Boston in the Dark Ages!! Same with the teachers...the students and tax payers lose at the unions gain!
Roxxma August 29, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Timothy Crawford: What in the world are you talking about? These are private companies contracted by the City to pick up trash. If there's a union issue, it's between the trash company and its employees, not the City.
Robert Yarbrough August 30, 2012 at 01:10 AM
JV, Saying "this isn't the burbs", a truism that doesn't add to the conversation, and to simply throw out solutions as "unworkable and unrealistic" shows your faith in "outside of the box" thinking (reference critics of the original PC, iPod, Netflix, etc). I understand cities have different challenges, but my principle is "thousands of decisions on a daily basis" (the market) is incomparably better than "one decision, once a year" (the city council). On Demand Trash: The point here is the current system is "one size fits all" - and you cannot opt out of the $40 million price tag even if it doesn't fit your demands. In fact, the people we pay have the audacity to ticket us if we put out a bag 1hr "too early"! Inefficient Labor: This is a subjective argument. If the market will bear a price for something, the consumer will have it. An entire city, served by the same "on demand" provider would likely raise prices if there were no competition (reference Comcast as the only cable provider in the city...). Group Disposals: I'm sure the same arguments were made for Zipcar, and they do just fine. As to cleanliness, business has a vested interest in making a product appealing - unlike your local MassDOT storage area. Business is "on trial" - daily - to get it right with every $ spent. Pay by Weight: This is an instant incentive to use less and directly addresses "too much trash" of cities. "Hiding" costs increases consumption - trash is no exception.
Robert Yarbrough August 30, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Roxxma, I didn't know about those in Germany, though something like that does sound promising. I'll admit, I'm not sure how they would work in each neighborhood (the North End certainly would be a challenge), but it would be "another way" that could work for some. As mentioned in my reply to JV, "thousands of decisions" will certainly let the best ideas rise to the top. By definition, the current "one size" contract is too large and complex to be effective ($40 million / 13 councillors = $3 million per councillor. For just trash!). Decentralized action is much more efficient, simply by its nature.
Robert Yarbrough August 30, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Jon, I'll agree that ripping open bags for 5 cents per can is a nuisance, though the problem cannot be solved by "thicker bags" or "locking cans" as most politicians would probably suggest. Where there is a will, there is a way. The problem is the artificial value of the cans. On the market, one pound of aluminum cans, about 34 (http://earth911.com/news/2007/04/02/facts-about-aluminum-recycling/), can be sold to recyclers for $0.48 (http://www.scrapmonster.com/scrap-prices/scrap-metals/Aluminum-Cans-scraps/11/1/1). That means each can is about 1.4 cents on the open market. However, every time we buy a can, we are taxed 5 cents (some states are 10!) - 357% its actual value (on top of paying Coke/Pepsi/Whoever for the can in the first place). At that rate of return, who wouldn't collect them?! So, while in this day and age it is taboo to talk about removing the deposit (after all, if it is good for cans, why not put deposits on everything?), the real solution would be to remove the deposit (the 357% incentive) on the cans that people seek. A good reference for further reading is "Recycling Myths Revisited" by the Property and Environment Research Center: http://www.perc.org/files/ps47.pdf I'll admit that I was the most ardent supporter of recycling for a long time, even bottle deposits, however, this paper made me at least think about my actions in a different way.
Robert Yarbrough August 30, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Roxxma, I think Timothy is referencing that Capitol Waste is staffed by Union Labor (http://www.capitolwasteservices.com/about.html). While they are a private company, unions, in the long run, tend to distort the actual market. As Henry Hazlitt states in "Economics in One Lesson": "Most of these [Union] policies have been followed under the assumption that there is just a fixed amount of work to be done, a definite 'job fund' which has to be spread over as many people and hours as possible so as not to use it up too soon. This assumption is utterly false. There is actually no limit to the amount of work to be done. Work creates work. What A produces constitutes the demand for what B produces." http://www.fee.org/library/books/economics-in-one-lesson/#0.1_L20 That is another discussion altogether, but suffice to say that in the topic at hand: - The City writes one contract. It will be Union, or it will not be Union. It will anger some, it will please others. - If everyone could choose their own methods of disposal, they could choose whatever companies met their needs the best. Union/Non-Union/Volunteer Labor/Zero Trash Generation/Etc
GGG September 01, 2012 at 04:03 PM
In regards to the bags being ripped open for the deposit bottles and cans, we simply place all of those items in their own bag, place that bag next to the clear plastic recycle bag that contains no deposit bottles or cans. Our trash has mostly food waste and non-recyclable materials. This simple step seems to prevent our garbage bags from being ripped open. We also place our garbage out early in the morning, as opposed to the evening before. When the garbage has been collected, if there is still a bit of mess on the sidewalk in front of our building, it takes two minutes to sweep up the debris and place in a trash bag for the next pickup. My parents pay an exorbitant amount for trash collection in Maryland. Their trash is collected only once a week and they are limited to what fits in their one can. Some residents may need to take more personal responsibility for their own areas to keep the community looking its best.
A P September 03, 2012 at 01:49 PM
Ah yes, leave it to the market. That was such a rip roaring success as an approach to our country's financial systems. That said, I do think each of you have raised a lot of interesting ideas here. I'm as irritated as the next south ender when I come home from work and find (relatively infrequently) a mess where a few neatly tied trash bags were left that morning. So . . . I clean it up. GGG makes several common sense, no cost observations and examples for keeping our sidewalks clean, and I was particularly struck by the comment: "Some residents may need to take more personal responsibility for their own areas to keep the community looking its best." Thanks GGG. These are public streets we live on and we are all a part of the public. Sometimes that means getting our hands dirty keeping the little piece of public space in front of the buildings we live in tidy, and schooling our newest neighbors on ways to minimize trash day messes.
LAZ September 04, 2012 at 12:52 AM
No one has mentioned the rats that also enjoy the trash...
Robert Yarbrough September 04, 2012 at 07:49 PM
AP, It is a widely held misconception that the financial markets are a "free market". In practice, they are a system of cronyism, special favors, and bailouts. These distortions prevent true free market actions from occuring, and we all suffer in the end. Case in point is fractional reserve banking and the FED's "Reserve Requirement" (currently 0% for "small" banks, 10% for the largest). This means if you deposit $100 in a bank, it can then lend $100 to someone else instantly (or $90 if a large bank). So, to the economy, it looks like there are now $200 total in circulation (or $190). If both of you want to redeem "your" money, you would be unable to do so at the same time. In a "free market" this would create a "bank run" and the fraudulent bank would most likely shut down. People would move their assets to safer institutions, and banks would have an incentive to NOT engage in this type of gambling. However, in our system the government regulators "suspend redemption" (so you can't get your money), issue bailouts (using everyone's money), and allow the status quo to continue (with largely the same people in charge). Free? This is an entirely different conversation than trash, but my point is, the "free market" that most people point to for "failing" (great depression included) isn't really a "free market" in the true sense of the phrase at all. http://mises.org/misesreview_detail.aspx?control=360
Sara Jacobi September 04, 2012 at 11:20 PM
LAZ, I was thinking of doing a separate story on rats in the South End. Are they a big problem in your opinion? Are they the true manifestation of a trash disposal problem in the city? (litter is one thing, but hoards of rats... *shudder*).

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