The Fight for a Tidier Trash-Hauling System

Government UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

The Fight for a Tidier Trash-Hauling System

The city is starting to take baby steps toward untangling the messy web of private trash trucks that crisscross the city. But private trash haulers have spent the past year pushing back against efforts that could pare down the overlaps.

The city is starting to take baby steps toward untangling the messy web of private trash trucks that crisscross the city.

A dozen different trash services operate in San Diego – the city’s own service for single-family homes, plus 11 private companies that serve apartment complexes and businesses.

Under the current system, trash trucks re-trace one another’s steps, and several different companies might pick up trash in the same alley. Private trash haulers have spent the past year pushing back against efforts that could pare down the overlaps.

The back and forth began last August, when the city auditor suggested that the city be divided into trash collection zones. Only one trash hauling company would be allowed in each zone.

Switching systems can save customers money, auditors said, because it’s more efficient for one area to be served by one company than by several.

Auditors also said garbage trucks are “probably responsible for a significant portion of the city’s street deterioration, potholes and related street maintenance costs.” Trash haulers don’t just send one trash truck, they send one for trash and one for recycling. Plus, they may pick up in the same area more than once a week.

The city’s Environmental Services Department is moving tentatively ahead with plans to study the city’s trash services.

But if the city really decides to get serious about changing systems, it must give the private haulers at least five years’ notice – something it hasn’t yet done.

In July, in the midst of concerns expressed by the San Diego County Disposal Association, which represents several large trash haulers, the city agreed to extend the haulers’ agreements for seven years. That means even as the city is considering overhauling how it collects trash, it seems to have locked itself into the current system for seven more years.

Mike McDade, the association’s lobbyist, said during a City Council meeting that the decision took “a lot of the friction” out of the city’s work with haulers.

San Diego is the largest city on the West Coast that has yet to adopt territorial trash services. Los Angeles is moving to a system that has 11 different zones, each served by a single hauling company. Within San Diego County, smaller cities – including El Cajon, Escondido, Oceanside and Poway – have created systems that allow only one trash collector to run routes in the city.

About three-fourths of the city’s 1.3 million tons of trash is collected each year by private haulers.

The city takes care of trash for single-family homes for free, thanks to the People’s Ordinance. If you live in an apartment building, your landlord probably has a contract with the garbage collectors.

The three largest haulers – Waste Management and Republic Services, two national companies, and EDCO, which is locally owned – dominate the market here. To pick up trash in the city, a company needs to sign a franchise agreement with the city and then pay $15 or $16 per ton, depending on how many tons they pick up.

It’s hard to know what will actually happen if San Diego makes the switch, but it seems likely prices could go down for customers.

When Los Angeles studied the issue, its consultant looked at 24 Southern California cities that switched to zones. Rates went down in 21 of those cities, usually by double digits, even as trash services sometimes improved. When San Jose made the switch to trash zones several years, rates initially dropped for more than half of the city’s customers, though rates went up for other customers.

San Diego private haulers – some of which do business in other cities that have zones – nevertheless have argued San Diego should wait to see what happens in Los Angeles.

“We have argued that we should wait and see how that works out in Los Angeles before we spend $250,000 for a consultant and that we also should realize that if you do a study at this point and no action is taken on any of this for some period of time, you’ll be paying for the study again to bring it up to date later on,” McDade, the lobbyist for haulers, said.

But the city auditor’s office has suggested waiting only delays the chance to change things in San Diego.

“The city’s choice of franchise system has a significant impact on street maintenance costs, customer prices, air and noise pollution, as well as the city’s ability to meet Zero Waste goals,” Eduardo Luna, the city auditor, said last week in an email. Doing a study now allows the city to “choose which system is best for San Diego sooner, rather than later.”

A former city official said the benefits of zones to the environment and to the roads are unquestionable, but that it’s not yet clear whether zones would save customers much money.

“We had conversations with the city of Los Angeles and the jury is still out on whether zone collection would save money over the long-term,” said Stephen Grealy, a former deputy director of the Environmental Services Department’s waste disposal division.

Haulers argue there are benefits to the current system, namely competition.

Todd Ottonello, vice president of Daily Disposal Services, said “it’s the American Way” for customers to have a choice and that competition can hold down prices.

“What is the difference between the trash haulers and UPS and FedEx – how many times do they go up and down the street?” he said.

In 2009, city officials said they might change systems but then quickly reversed course in the face of hauler opposition. The whole battle was fought and won by haulers behind the scenes.

The current talk from the city does not seem to involve changing the People’s Ordinance, which provides trash services without a fee to single-family homes thanks to taxes paid by everyone in the city, including low-income families who are less likely to own homes.

“How can you really look at efficiencies unless you consider that?” said Elmer Heap, the public-sector manager at Waste Management.

Without abandoning the free trash pickup for single-family homes, even if the city switches to zones, it’s possible there will be one private company in each zone, plus the city’s own trucks in single-family residential neighborhoods.

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