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Tuesday, July 3, 2007 04:38 am

A new try for trash reform

Led by Alderman Mark Mahoney, this new City Council may get the job done

Untitled Document People who have lived somewhere else are best at understanding how complex and cumbersome Springfield’s trash system is. When Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson lived in Chicago, she simply put her garbage out and it was picked up. No bill, no questions, no problem. That’s the way it works in most cities, large and small. But in Springfield Simpson’s still learning the patched-together system of multiple private haulers, with different rules for yard waste, which is sometimes free and sometimes requires a sticker, and still other systems for recycling, bulky-item pickup, and tree-branch disposal. Some trash goes to the alley, some goes to the curb, and if you get that wrong it sits there. Sometimes it sits there even if you get it right, but it’s hard to know. Was I supposed put a sticker on those tree branches? “It is cumbersome,” says David Schaab about Springfield’s system. “It needs to be simplified.” Schaab is the municipal marketing manager for the Waste Management company, which hauls garbage for Peoria, Galesburg, Monmouth, Macomb, and many other cities. In those places, as in most towns across the country, the only thing residents have to remember is what day to put out their garbage. All they know, he says, is this: “It was full when I went to work. It was empty when I came home.”
Confusion about the rules is not the biggest problem with Springfield’s subscription-based trash system. The problem is that at least hundreds, probably thousands, of households — no one knows exactly how many — choose not to subscribe. They sneak their garbage into someone else’s Dumpster, let it pile up in the alley, or fly-dump it in a vacant lot. “With a subscription system,” Schaab says, “fly dumping is here to stay.”
Schaab may be right that the only way to deal effectively with fly dumping is to have “universal service,” in which the city pays to have everybody’s garbage picked up, as Peoria does. Even in Peoria there is reportedly some fly dumping, although Schaab says that Waste Management, as the city’s contracted hauler, quickly cleans up messes when it is notified. Though universal service is attractive, Springfield probably isn’t politically ready for that much change. It is too soon to say that Springfield’s ordinance requiring all households to subscribe to garbage service is unenforceable. That’s because the city hasn’t really tried to enforce it. The first step toward better enforcement is to find out how many households don’t have trash service. Wynne Coplea, manager of the city’s Division of Waste and Recycling, has gathered estimates indicating that there are 34,085 occupied homes in Springfield, and quarterly reports from the city’s four haulers show an average over the 2006 calendar year of 32,277 homes with garbage service. That would leave 1,808 homes, or 5.3 percent, without service. But Coplea says that some haulers may leave non-paying customers on their rolls even after they cut off service, in hopes of getting them back. Schaab of Waste Management says that subscription-based trash systems elsewhere rarely have more than 75 percent participation, and earlier studies have shown 15 to 20 percent noncompliance in Springfield. A more accurate answer would result from matching the waste haulers’ customer addresses with a master list of residences with utility service. Mike Norris, director of public works, said he’s tried doing that, using geographic information system software, but getting reliable results proved too difficult. Perhaps the aldermen will urge him to try again. As Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney told Illinois Times: “There was a discrepancy in the number of households that do not have pickup. We need to find out exactly what we’re looking at.”
Once the city identifies which households don’t have trash service, neighborhood associations could be enlisted to help get them signed up. An enforcement effort would be aided by a new ordinance clarifying that landlords are responsible for seeing that trash service is provided at all rented locations. The current ordinance says trash service is the responsibility of “the owner or occupant, lessee or contract for deed buyer” of a residence, allowing each to blame the other. This and other worthy recommendations are in the 2001 report of Mayor Karen Hasara’s Waste and Recycling Task Force, a must-read for the current aldermen. Simplifying the trash system won’t be easy. The current mayor and his predecessor both plunged into the problem enthusiastically at first, only to back off after learning the issue’s political difficulties. It’s heartening that Mahoney and the new City Council are making a fresh attempt to clean up the city by taking on trash reform. Mahoney’s waste subcommittee drew eight of the 10 aldermen to its first hearing, June 18, when it heard from city staffers and waste haulers. The aldermen can expect a large turnout for the second hearing, July 16, when landlords and neighborhood groups are invited to weigh in. Perhaps this new City Council can find the political will to get the job done this time. Political will is, after all, a renewable resource.

Fletcher Farrar was a member of the 2001 Waste and Recycling Task Force, a group whose recommendations have yet to be implemented. He can be reached at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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