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The Sun-Times is reporting that the Emanuel administration is pressing forward with plans to change the way city crews pick up garbage, from a ward-based system to a grid-based system. Unless you’re the type who enjoys reading up on sanitation policy—hey, there are a few of us—this may not seem terribly interesting. But it’s a big deal for financial, environmental, and political reasons.
This is an issue because, for starters, a lot of our tax money is spent on garbage collection and disposal—the 2011 budget for the city’s Bureau of Sanitation, the division of the Department of Streets and Sanitation that handles waste management, is $141 million, and that doesn't include the cost of things like truck maintenance and fuel. More than $95 million goes toward waste collection. Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he can cut that figure by nearly two-thirds. Even if that figure is inflated, as it very well may be, there's little doubt that we can deal with our waste more cheaply while also sending less of it to landfills, which is currently the destination for more than 80 percent of what we discard.
Logic has not always been part of the equation here. Streets and San currently designs its garbage collection routes to align with ward boundaries, which of course are drawn for political reasons—to protect incumbents, to slice up the pie among racial and ethnic groups, to ensure certain people or businesses are represented by certain friendly aldermen. Wards are often gerrymandered down to the block. For example, here’s the First Ward, where a fair number of our readers live:
Picking up garbage by wards with fingers and thumbs sticking out all over the place ensures inefficiency. Sanitation trucks make fewer pickups per hour and take longer to get from collection sites to the waste transfer stations where the trash is dumped. That's why the city has organized its recycling expansion—insofar as there has been an expansion—on a grid system. It's much more affordable.
In every other major city in the United States, garbage routes are drawn to cut financial and environmental costs—and collection costs much less. Many cities use software to design the most time- and cost-effective routes, taking into consideration factors as specific as the extra time needed to make left turns, navigate busy intersections, or get past schools when they’re letting out for the day. Over the course of a year, minutes here and there can add up to millions of dollars in wasted labor and fuel costs.
No other big city organizes garbage collection around political boundaries.
Aldermen who support the current system say it ensures accountability—they say that when residents have a problem with garbage pickup, they can call their aldermen, who can call the streets and san ward superintendent.
In their defense, it’s hard to look at the way power has been concentrated at City Hall for most of the last century and dismiss anything that provides a check on mayoral power.
On the other hand, there are plenty of ways aldermen could provide a check on mayoral power, such as serving as the legislators they’re supposed to be. They haven’t exactly run with those opportunities.
The ward-based garbage system is a vestige of the old patronage system. Aldermen like the fact that they get to appoint their own ward superintendents, who sometimes become local political figures in their own right.
Last fall the inspector general estimated that a switch to grid-based trash pickup would save the city more than $30 million a year, mostly through cuts in laborers. Equipment maintenance and fuel costs would also be slashed—as would the level of air-polluting fuel emissions.
Streets and San officials announced in February that they would begin transitioning to a grid collection system. Now the Emanuel administration is reiterating that it plans to proceed—while claiming that the potential savings is twice what the IG estimated. As with all of Emanuel’s budget announcements, it’s not clear what the origins of that number are.
Nor does it appear the administration is taking these reforms as far as they could go. Most of the city is not directly affected by how Streets and San picks up garbage: only about 14 percent of the 8 million tons of waste generated in Chicago each year comes from the 600,000 homes served by city sanitation crews; the rest comes from commercial buildings and residences with more than four units, which contract with a patchwork of private waste firms.
Three years ago city officials floated a plan to divvy up the entire city into as many as 20 segments and let waste haulers, including Streets and San, bid on the right to provide service to all the businesses and homes within them. City officials predicted that the plan would dramatically improve recycling rates, lower costs for consumers, and reduce fuel emissions.
But they didn’t effectively sell the plan and vastly underestimated the political pushback, which came from local chambers of commerce, citizens skeptical that the city could oversee a fair bidding process, and especially waste haulers who make a lot of money on the current system.
The Emanuel administration appears to be moving toward a similar zone-based, competitive system—but only for the homes that get city garbage service.
This would put tons of pressure on city workers and their unions to come up with efficient collection service. But it wouldn't put any additional heat on private-sector waste haulers, who will have even more opportunities to make money without having to provide better, cleaner, more efficient service to the apartment buildings and businesses they already serve.