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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Today's Open Market Special: Red Herring

Before tonight's public hearing, I wanted to finish responding to the last of the talking points that NSWMA gave to us to support their position opposing any further discussion of organized collection. (Here's a link to all of the entries on this topic.)

The fourth and final set of NSWMA arguments display some pride in various accomplishments of waste haulers. Perhaps it is justified. However, in terms of actually illustrating distinctions between open hauling and organized collection, they're all red herrings -- rhetorical distractions designed to make us think positive things about waste haulers, and thus incline us to agree with their trade association, though the points are logically irrelevant to the issue at hand.

• An open market with competition is the best way to drive innovation, efficiency, and value. Value is not just price, but the combination of price, service, and environmental protection.

I have a few thoughts in response to this.

First of all, it seems to me that a basic element of an open market is that either party to a transaction can choose to walk away. In the case of trash hauling, residents are required to buy a service from a limited list of sellers. And that's only the tip of the iceberg of mandates, regulation, and barriers to entry that looms over the entire solid waste management sector. So whether or not this statement about "open markets" is true, it is irrelevant to Maplewood's situation where there is not a true open market.

Second, I would suggest that competitive bidding for neighborhoods is certainly competition, just like doing it house by house. Indeed, I would argue that it enhances the pressure toward value and innovation. Changes that would never be made at the request of just one household may be accommodated in order to win a contract for thousands. Cities with organized collection have the leverage to be on the leading edge of service options and improvements. Since most American cities have organized collection, it seems quite plausible that many innovations would be introduced first in response to the requests and requirements of large blocks of customers that those cities represent, then offered to the open hauling cities. If there is some evidence that only the household-by-household competition of open hauling cities drives innovation, NSWMA hasn't provided it. Lacking such evidence, this point is also irrelevant as an argument in favor open hauling.

Third, when it comes to efficiency, open hauling by definition means running multiple trucks and crews down the same routes. If a hauler establishes a commanding market share, and thereby increases efficiency, then it also loses the competitive pressure assumed to keep down prices. So it seems there's a little tension between the "efficiency" and "value" propositions -- or at least there's a point where increasing one is at the expense of the other. Organized collection, with its neighborhood-wide approach, can achieve both efficiency and value.

Finally, while I certainly appreciate the strides made by the waste industry toward environmental responsibility, I'm just not ready to accept the NSWMA's implication that it was all driven by the free market and corporate altruism, or that none of it came from pressures in the organized collection markets in which many of the same haulers work. Based on the track record of skewed and misleading information in NSWMA's communications to date, I'm going to assume the story is not exactly how they tell it. How many of those innovations in environmental protection came because of outside pressure -- such as government mandates, or actual or threatened lawsuits?

As I look at the NSWMA's lobbying priorities on their website, they suggest ongoing efforts to thwart the public interest in favor of their own short-term profits, flying in the face of their high-minded claims. A good example is their opposition to flow control (government requirements about where trash can go based on environmental priorities and the long-term public costs, as opposed to allowing haulers to take it wherever they can dump it most cheaply).

Continuing with their talking points...

• Private sector waste companies are innovators in reducing truck emissions.

Again, how much of those reductions are voluntary or driven by competition for individual customers? How many are in response to federal and state air quality regulations? And perhaps more importantly, how or why would it be any different under organized versus open hauling? As it stands, this point is irrelevant to our discussion, since it doesn't change no matter which system we use.

• Today's private sector hauling fleet puts "more rubber on the ground" effectively spreading the total load across the road. With open hauling this advantage is increased.

This statement reminds me of those ads for a 50% off sale that gush "the more you buy, the more you save!"

It's great that truck designs are improving to reduce wear on streets, and I appreciate the implicit acknowledgment that trash trucks' wear on streets is a problem worth addressing. I can't imagine they'd spend money on fleet upgrades if they had proof that it didn't matter. But imagine if we had just one truck spreading its load more effectively on one of our residential side streets, instead of three, four or eight...?

In other words, as an argument for open hauling, this is irrelevant. It works just as well as an argument for organized collection.

• Private haulers have supported the separate collection of yard waste for many years and designed collection systems that are efficient and customer friendly.
• Private haulers have been innovators in recycling programs and dramatically increased citizen participation in the amount of material recycled.

These statements may be true, but still don't demonstrate any benefit of open hauling over organized systems, given that private haulers are typically doing the work in both cases.  Again, we would need some reason to believe that these innovations come exclusively from open collection systems (whether trash or recycling), and then spread to organized cities.  It seems more likely that the reverse is the case.  We do know that studies have found that organized collection increases recycling. One referenced in the 2009 MPCA study found 13.5% more recycling pounds per households in cities with organized recycling collection, for example.

Lacking any explanation of why these final points, praiseworthy though they may be, distinguish open hauling from organized collection, we'll just have to identify them as red herrings written to evoke sympathy as well. Throw 'em in the trash bin along with all the other factual errors and logical fallacies that make up the bulk of NSWMA's arguments.

Perhaps we should say recycling bin, since I have no doubt that the same red herrings will be pulled out, dusted off, and offered to the next Minnesota community that tries to start a conversation on this topic.

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