Trash-to-Trough Fuss Still Haunts City Hall
San Diego residents aren’t charged a fee for garbage collection,
a quirk that is rooted in an almost century-old city scandal.
San Diego doesn’t charge for trash pickup, unlike every other major city in California, a state of affairs that continues to vex a cash-strapped City Hall. How did this happen? Give the credit (or blame) to pigs — both the porcine kind and businessmen who stuck their snout into the public trough.
Hogs like to eat garbage, particularly food waste. So much so that a century ago, American cities often sent their trash to hog farms where it would be consumed by future Easter hams and breakfast sausages.
This was all well and good. Happy hogs, happy pig farmers, happy cities with a little extra dough in their coffers. The trash-to-trough practice was perfectly sanitary — or so proclaimed those who promoted it.
In San Diego, however, there was a problem. A private company that charged residents to haul away trash was double-dipping. While San Diegans had to pay a fee to get rid of their garbage, the company reaped proceeds from selling the refuse to hog farms in Los Angeles. It made a large profit in the process, a recent Los Angeles Times story noted, while still making San Diegans pay for collection. Residents’ reaction to the news still affects us today.
Voters in April 1919 were asked whether they wanted to require the city to collect garbage from homes. The ballot measure got scant attention in an election dominated by a mudslinging-filled campaign for mayor, a fuss over the construction of an Old Town bridge and nasty school board politics. But it passed by 85 percent to 15 percent with about 14,300 total votes.
The so-called People’s Ordinance allowed city leaders to levy fees for trash pickup. However, as the San Diego County Grand Jury reported in 2009, “that portion of the Ordinance was never implemented, establishing a precedent for no-fee trash collection.”
The People’s Ordinance is still in place today and has even more power. In 1981, voters declared that residential trash collection would remain free, although there could be fees for industrial and commercial waste. In 1986, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune, voters declared that free service would end for newly built multi-family homes (condos and apartments) but be allowed for small businesses. Voters also updated the ordinance to remove language requiring the separation of garbage, defined as “table refuse, night soil, swill and the entrails of butchered animals.”
The grand jury, which recommended that voters revise the ordinance to allow fees, says this means about 304,000 households in the city don’t pay fees for trash pickup. The cost of all this, the grand jury said, is $53 million a year.
The city is still debating whether to give the city budget a boost by charging residents for trash pickup. Last week, a City Council committee objected to a mayoral proposal to stop providing free trash collection to residents who live on private streets.
As for hog farms, the city banned them within city limits in the late 1950s.
And in 1962, the city stopped sending garbage to the farms. Pigs have had to make do with other sources of slop since then, although City Hall has certainly never stopped appreciating the value of pork.
We’ll be explaining the People’s Ordinance and its history Wednesday in our latest San Diego Explained on NBC San Diego. Tune in to the 6 p.m. newscast.
A Bonus Dispatch From History Man: The 1919 ballot measure didn’t mark the first time San Diego got its trash cans in a bunch over garbage collection. Hold your nose, and let’s take a trip even further back in time.
Back in the late 19th century, getting rid of trash in the city was a challenge, and often a stinky one. Sometimes officials sent it out to sea, but the heady smell of a wharf full of trash made sailors woozy. (It’s “high time something was done to abate the nuisance,” The San Diego Union urged).
On the bright (and less odiferous) side, cows and pigs were no longer allowed to roam loose through city streets. Still, residents complained of manure dumped downtown and dead animals left at the foot of G Street, and many were unhappy about the public cleaning of fish on downtown sidewalks. (That got banned.)
The Union declared itself disgusted and called for municipal garbage collection instead of allowing residents to avoid paying for trash pickup and instead burn, bury or throw their refuse “on vacant lots or in their own yards.”
By the late 1890s, the city started to separate its rubbish (into cans for smelly and non-smelly trash), officials retired San Diego’s old garbage scow and hired a man to get rid of the city’s trash. Dead animals and “night soil” — a polite way of referring to outhouse sewage — were to be taken out of the city limits and used for fertilizer if possible.
But the garbage collector didn’t do his job: he was arrested after leaving what the Union called “piles of odorous refuse or cesspools of fever-germs” in downtown. By the late 1910s, the 70,000-resident city had contracted with a private company to provide trash collection. And along came the scandal that led to the city’s current no-fee trash collection policies.
Clarification: We’ve updated the photo caption to indicate that the 1919 ordinance established a precedent for no-fee trash collection. It didn’t explicitly require it.