Sunday, November 4, 2012

There's something stinky with the trash contract...

...and it might not be what our local journalists and business people are thinking it is.  From rotten in the state of Denmark, we proceed to a discussion of putrescible in the City of League City

If you've been following this story at all, there arose a few interesting discussion threads on an article written by Chris Gonzalez and an editorial by Heber Taylor of Galveston County Daily News.  Writing for Bay Area Citizen, Y.C. Orozco (a journalist thus far unknown to me) penned perhaps the most comprehensive summary of the contract status and also the historical legacy (including a recap of the irregularities that characterized the letting of the present trash contract to Ameriwaste). 

On October 28, I began asking the obvious questions that don't seem to be arising in any other arena.  Now, I am the first to admit that I don't have any grasp of the legalities behind municipal trash contracting.  I note this because Bay Area Citizen quoted Mayor Paulissen as describing it as "a state process".  What the heck does that mean exactly, and what impacts might it have on common sense?  I don't know. 

But common sense is my default perspective, and common sense is increasingly leading me to conclude the following: 

The problem with the trash contract is not that it unfairly burdens businesses and other non-residential entities with a disproportionate share of the costs.  The problem with the contract is more fundamental than that - it's a bad fit to the needs of the city simply because it appears to be based on a surprisingly wasteful (no pun intended) set of logistical assumptions.

On October 28, I questioned why we had twice-weekly trash collection in the first place when residents of other local munis (most notably, City of Houston) pay for only one. 

Bear with me here because this question is not the non-starter that some people assume it to be.  Here is my more precise derivative question today:  has anyone actually studied this issue and gathered data to support a twice-weekly scenario with all of the extra millions of dollars that it obligates us to fork out (allegedly by shifting much of that resulting cost burden to non-residential customers) over the life of this new contract? 

I am not aware of any quantitative investigations, so (as unromantic as this sounds) I started gathering my own data (my dog does not care whether I carry a clipboard on our walks). 

I chose Section 9 of Centerpointe subdivision as my study area because it's convenient and because I know it well (n = 75 homes, of which only one was known to be vacant at data collection time).  According to HAR, Centerpointe's median appraised home value is $221,600.  That's within 10% of the medians for subdivisions such as South Shore, Tuscan Lakes, and Westover Park, and thus our little slice of suburbia probably represents a reasonable "League City bedroom community" approximation (and League City is dominated by such subdivisions).   I didn't tell anyone in advance that I would collect data, because I did not want to skew behavior (and because most people wouldn't care anyway). 

What I found was striking.  On Wednesday October 31, we had a 91% trash participation rate, meaning, 91% of households put out their trash for collection.  Wednesday is also our recycling day, so this was not a surprising result: peoples' brains generally register Wednesday as "trash day" here and many tend to put everything out at once. 

The following Saturday (November 3), which is our second weekly collection day, participation fell to just 56%. 

But what was most striking on Saturday was not that percentage by itself - it was the way in which those people were participating: most of them put out almost no trash

Many folks had so little trash to be collected that they didn't even bother to put it in trash cans or rolly carts, like they normally do on Wednesdays.  Of the folks who did bother to haul out their cans, this was a common sight - one tiny sack at the bottom. 
This was the common non-can alternative - bags simply placed on the ground.  That larger bag contains mostly uncompressed cardboard.
And this example.  Looks lonesome, doesn't he??  He has no friends to keep him company.  I could go on and on with pictures of this type. 
And this example.  This isn't even a kitchen-style trash bag - it's just a tiny handled shopping bag containing mostly junk mail.  Should management of this material be a huge financial priority for taxpayers??  Is our collective public health status somehow going to be jeopardized if little bags of general household rubbish are allowed to remain sitting in rolly carts for slightly longer periods of time?
Basically what we seem to have here is a situation in which League City taxpayers are forking out millions and millions of extra dollars so that these teensy weensy bags of trash can be picked up three to four days earlier than they would be otherwise. 

If, for the moment, we accept these data at face value, we can conclude that only about half of League City is availing themselves of this extravagant twice-weekly scheme - and worse - that half is just barely using it to boot. 

Obviously this is not a full quantitative scientific study here, because it involved only one subdivision and one pair of participation measurements (this being due to the newness of this trash debate).  But these results are qualitatively consistent with what my common-sense eyeballs have been telling me for years both in Centerpointe and at my former residence in Old Town:  League City residents don't really use this service the way it was apparently intended to be used.  They don't use it because they simply don't need it.  Like the 2.1 million residents of Houston, we could get along just marvelously with once-weekly service, at substantial tax dollar savings.  About half our populace has already volunteered to do just that, without even having been asked!

And the flip side of that resource allocation coin is the allegation that League City is shifting the cost burdens for this wasteful waste scheme onto our commercial businesses and local nonprofitsIt is alleged that the new scheme will cost Clear Creek ISD an incremental trash collection fee that is roughly equivalent to one teacher's salary!  Does any of this make a lick of sense?? 

I sure as hell would not vote for things to be this way, nor would I vote for anyone who votes for the likes of it.  I do not vote for initiatives in which I feel taxpayer dollars are being squandered. 

Reverting now to what Bay Area Citizen quoted Paulissen as saying, is there something about "state law" that compels small municipalities to scope trash contracts to be as wasteful as this?  If so, why isn't anybody doing anything about that?

And believe it or not, the situation might actually be even worse than all that, when evaluated from a financial viability standpoint.  On October 31, I measured only a 43% recycling participation rate.   That fact just in isolation has significant cost-benefit ramifications, but this blog post is getting long, so I will save that for a separate future entry.

Not much work to do this morning, boys:
An Ameriwaste truck cruising through a sparsely-trashed area on the morning of November 3.  The five closest subdivision lots in the foreground had collectively put out only two trash cans.  One of those was the same can pictured in the close-up above, the can with only one small bag at the bottom of it. 


  1. To me it seems the big trash load dichotomy between Wednesdays and Saturdays is that Wednesday is the first opportunity to unload the accumulated trash from the weekend - which I'd argue is significantly greater than from weekdays for many folks. A Monday & Saturday pick up would likely bring the two days into much greater balance.
    Whether two days are really necessary, I don't know.

  2. My bottom line on it, which I didn't really articulate succinctly in any of these posts, is as follows:

    If LC citizens really want two trash days and are willing to pay for two trash days, hurray and power to 'em - let them knock themselves out with it.

    The problem with this kind of thing, though, is that they might not actually KNOW what they want until someone twigs their attention to what's actually going on with the money.

    Government waste happens because the deleterious impacts are usually so subtle when viewed on an individual basis that they are almost impossible to detect in real time... it's a slow silent bleed that doesn't seem very important to any individual person, but then when one gets a glimpse of the 30,000-foot view, it's like - holy crap - we are just a small city and here we just wasted ten million freakin' dollars (or whatever amount).

    This issue is particularly difficult because nobody really wants to think about trash. I am not too proud to get out there and count trash bags if that's what someone needs to do (I've done less delectable things in my professional career, which has been in the environmental services sector for the past 20 years). But most people don't even want to have to hear about it, let alone be involved in thinking about something so nose-wrinkling. Those are precisely the situations in which we need strong political and community leadership to pick up the slack.


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