Trash tangle

by Carolyn Chase


n the city of San Diego, the weekly trash pick-up is the most tangible, consistent and altogether useful service that the vast majority of residents receive from the city. One thing's for sure: any substantive change in it and everyone notices.

What's important to most people about trash is simply that it "goes away." As long as it "goes away," what happens to it after is much less interesting - as long as it doesn't happen near your neighborhood.

For environmentalists, what's important about trash is also that it "goes away," but we mean really go away, as in disappear, as in be reduced at the source or recovered back into the resource stream. There is no such place as away when it comes to trash. An area's trash, or solid waste as it's called in the trash business, fills canyons and creates considerable water and air pollution problems over time.

Over the years the city has opened and closed a number of dumps (this is what they were called before "landfills" evolved.) The County used to operate the rest of the "solid waste facilities." Over the years the city and county sparred and postured over landfill fees and other issues. The system had evolved to the point where most of the county other cities' trash storage was managed by the county. But the county privatized their trash facilities last year by selling out to Scottsdale, Arizona-based waste conglomerate, Allied Waste. With the closure of the landfill in San Marcos, the city of San Diego now hosts the two major landfills in the county and receives as much as 75% of all the trash generated from the region.

Where do the public and the environment fit into this picture? One thing I've learned over years of reviewing project documents and attending public hearings - where there's confusion, there's usually cash. And if there's one steady thing about San Diego's trash system, it's a certain amount of confusion.

While the operations were sold to Allied and the permit transferred, the site itself is still inside the city limits of San Diego and they have both permitting and solid waste jurisdiction over the site. Welcome to the new world of San Diego trash. We're beginning the era of corporate vs. government control and the public is about to get caught in the crossfire.

Everyone, especially the public, should check their wallets. Allied has moved to reduce the per-ton fee charged at their landfill's gate. This has caused trash and cash to flow into Allied's landfill in Sycamore Canyon. Fair enough. But this is also cash flowing out of the city's revenue stream for Miramar. This can become a big problem for the city with no fee base to help cover their system's costs.

For most residents in San Diego county, the trash "goes away" for a monthly fee between $13-20/per month. But in the City of San Diego, for 300,000 households, the pick-up and storage is included in the range of services provided by city government. So for most San Diegans, it appears as though the trash "goes away" for free.

It's truly the ideal situation of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Every week, reliably and politely, your city-authorized container is removed and the contents stored away forever, seemingly for free. By this point, inquiring minds with an economic bent want to know: how do they do it?

The secret to success is related to the fact that the city over the years has been relatively landfill friendly - especially in comparison to other jurisdictions. This system design _requires_ the city to operate its own landfill. Because once you have to pick it up for free, you have to take it somewhere. And the only way to control that cost is to manage and operate the entire pick-up and storage system, including the landfills. In industry, it's called vertical integration. And if others will pay you to take their trash, then that's cash to support the citizens of San Diego.

Trash incentives in the City of San Diego are mixed, to say the least. The new competition from Allied is both a threat and an opportunity. While the city needs a certain amount of trash in order to cover its costs, every ton of the free residential trash it diverts is space that can be sold to someone else. The diversion of zero-fee waste, and the life-extension of Miramar becomes even more important and strategic. Providing the long promised and desired services of curbside recycling and greens collection will help increase diversion.

So the City has proposed to restructure it solid waste system fees. It's reducing the per-ton fee at the gate, known as the tipping fee, to be more competitive with Allied's reduced fees at Sycamore. More controversial is the city's move to increase the per-ton fees paid to pickup or dispose of trash in the city. Even if you pay Allied to pick-up and store it in their facility, you still have to pay a per-ton fee to the city. Part of these proposed per-ton fees will be used to pay for waste reduction programs including household hazardous waste collections and citywide expansion of curbside recycling.

As for whether or not it is fair for the city to increase host fees for disposing of trash, it is well known that the other jurisdictions have not wanted to do their fair share to site and take the long term responsibility required for landfills. Landfills are not like any other industrial land use. They are a perpetual obligation. Whether a company rises or falls, the trash remains. Since the city is now becoming the repository for the majority of trash storage in the county, in perpetuity, the host fees are deserved.

As for whether or not this change in fees needs to lead to an increase in other jurisdictions is an interesting question. When I was speaking to a small business owner about this issue, they replied that even though tipping fees have gone down, their trash bills have only gone up. As competition drives the tipping fees down, people should see their fees go down, not up.

Allied is no longer willing to fund important public education and household hazardous waste events. So every jurisdiction is faced with increasing fees to cover these required environmental programs.

The city's duty is to protect the interests of the public at large and to maximize important public assets. That includes establishing fees to cover the costs of making sure solid waste is appropriately managed and financed sustainably over the long term.

The next public hearing on these matters will be April 8 at the Natural Resources and Culture Committee of the City Council.