Taking out the trash

The "simple question" that provided the foil for columnist Richard Hart's fulminations about the regressive tax structures of our local municipalities in the Independent Weekly some weeks ago stuck in my mind precisely because it is a question that it would never have occurred to me to wonder.

Hart waxes indignant that the city of Durham is proposing a charge of $51.48 a year for trash pick-up, on top of property taxes:

Isn't garbage collection a fundamental municipal service, like maintaining streetlights ...?

For me, reading this column was the first inkling that anybody might consider garbage collection a fundamental municipal service. If anything, the appropriate category is a public utility, like water and sewer service -- essential to public welfare, and thus universally supplied through a government agency or government-regulated contractor, but still at a charge to those who use it.

It was only upon reading this column that I realized that I have no idea what the garbage collection policy has been for almost any of the cities I have lived in as an adult. Wheaton, Ill. used a coupon system where you adhered pre-payed stickers to your trash bins. I liked that system because it meant you paid based on the volume of trash you actually generated, not a flat rate per residence.

Everywhere else I've lived, I've just put out the trash and it would disappear. I've always assumed that my landlord was paying for the pick-up service and passing the bill along to me in the rent. But I suppose in some of these places it may have been treated as a public service at no charge to the property owner. (In which case it is included in the property tax bill, which is passed along to me in the rent ... six of one, etc.) After all, I've lived in towns that have treated municipal bands and mass transit as public works, so why not trash collection?

My assumption that trash removal is of course a service you pay for ultimately stems from early impressions of trash collection by men in big trucks as a convenience rather than a necessity. When I was very young, my parents found it less of a hassle (and less of an expense) to haul a station wagon full of full garbage bags to the city dump once a month or so than to get the trash to the curb by 7 a.m. once a week, so they forewent garbage service and removed their own trash.

This, of course, assumes ample storage space and a suitable vehicle, which are facts of life in semi-rural areas but not at all in more urban settings. Taking your own trash to a landfill, or even a transfer station, isn't really feasible for many urban dwellers.

But even with my small car and small apartment, I can imagine taking care of my own trash removal. The landfill is only a couple of miles away -- I've been there. Moreover, I estimate that I already haul close to a third of my own waste, since curbside recycling here only covers the most common categories of recyclable matter. The rest must be delivered to recycling centers, which I do more or less monthly, in conjunction with delivering reusable items to local thrift stores.

But my point -- and I do have one -- is this: by using trash collection charges as the jumping-off point for a column on "how irrational North Carolina's system of taxation has become," Hart promotes one progressive agenda (progressive taxation), but at the expense of another (environmental stewardship).

I'm all for distributing the cost of public goods in a way that doesn't absorb a disproportionate percentage of the income of the lowest wage earners, which is Hart's key point. Go ahead and tax the wealthy! (Especially since I'm not one of them.)

But do we want to base that argument on the presumption that generating garbage is a fundamental human right? Yes, it's impossible to live in this society without generating some waste, and proper sanitation is a public health issue. But to argue that it is wrong for municipalities to charge directly for trash removal takes away economic incentives as a motivational tool to minimize waste. (Not that I see any indication that the Durham proposal intends to make use of such incentives.)

Moreover, the presumption that garbage ought to just disappear without costing us anything alienates us from a valuable emotional incentive for environmental responsibility. Most of us, most of the time, don't think about where our trash goes, until some landfill crisis hits the news and we see pictures of garbage barges or burning refuse pits. But with all the graphic catastrophes we see on TV, that impression might last all of, oh, three minutes. At most.

The vision, not to mention the stench, of a real life landfill, on the other hand, makes a lasting impression. It gives a tangible experience of where your trash goes and the limits of the planet's capacity to absorb our junk. Those few times I accompanied my father on routine errands to the city dump were not elaborate object lessons, but elements of those visits stick vividly in my mind. Perhaps field trips to landfills would make us less alienated from our own garbage, and thus more alienated from the impulse to produce more of it than is necessary.

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