Trash Talk

May 12, 2011

Let’s talk some trash. Trash collection, that is. And that’ll be the last recycled pun (except for that one) we’ll use on the issue.As we hurdle toward the westward-ho garbage privatization debate set for city council next week, wouldn’t it be nice to have some solid facts and figures on the table in order for those who will ultimately make the decision to do so logically and with well grounded reasons for proceeding. Councillor Josh Matlow attempted to accomplish such a task on Tuesday night hosting a town hall meeting moderated by the ever moderate Steve Paikin of TVO fame. On one side was pro-privatization advocate and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong. Hugh MacKenzie, economist and research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, represented the anti-side of the equation.

Reading through accounts of the evening, it’s clear that no real consensus emerged. “Last night’s trash talk offered no clear answer on the garbage privatization debate, but one very popular moderator,” Carly Conway of the Torontoist tweeted yesterday. Hey. Maybe if we contract out trash collection to Steve Paikin, everyone might be happy! “It answered some questions for me and, frankly, left me with more questions than I came in here with,” Councillor Matlow told the Torontoist after the town hall.

It seems inconceivable to me that such an important issue that deals with not only a lot of money but peoples’ livelihoods couldn’t be a little more clear cut. Evidence must exist out there from towns and cities that have unloaded trash collection onto the private sector. Case studies, analysis, comparisons of before (privatization) and after, of places that have maintained public service. Metaviews, I guess, is what I’m thinking.

If I were an actual journalist or one of those people who aggregate and research such things, perhaps it might all become obvious which way to go. I’m not but I’m perfectly willing to read the work of someone who has done it. So far, however, such documents are few and far between, lost in a sea of studies all that can be easily shrugged off by opponents as tainted by self-interest or ideology. Unions will weigh in against privatization but they’re just looking after their own jobs, right? Try reading this instead from the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a ‘trade association that represents the private sector solid waste and recycling industry.’ Yeah, so they have no dog in this particular hunt, do they.

The field is awash in solid anecdotal evidence, frankly. For every Etobicoke that loves its privatized trash collection, there’s an Ottawa that has brought at least some of it back in-house after a brief private dalliance. (Interestingly, if I understand correctly, Ottawa re-publicked collection in the older downtown area of the city which is more analogous to the core of Toronto than Etobicoke is.) Like Tuesday’s townhall, neither side is able to deliver the knock-out blow that will sway a crowd to fully embracing its position.

Running with that boxing analogy, shouldn’t the advocates for garbage privatization have to win decisively like any challenger seeking to dislodge the established champion? If we’re going to take a leap of change purely for the possibility of saving money and improved service, the case for it needs to be nearly irrefutable. Yes, we’re going to save this much money. Yes, you’re going to be happier with the service. Guaranteed, to use the mayor’s TV pitchmen promise.

As the privatization pointman, Councillor Minnan-Wong has done nothing of the sort. His constant referencing to Etobicoke as an example for why the rest of the city should privatize is both unconvincing and, possibly, inapplicable. He assured the audience at Tuesday’s town hall that Etobicoke receives no more complaints about trash collection than the unprivatized parts of Toronto. No more complaints, Councillor? Shouldn’t we be aiming for fewer? He was unable to answer some important questions from the audience including gender equity hiring by private firms. When all else failed, the councillor claimed his job was not about social engineering.

Moreover, the savings he (and the rest of the pro-privatization crowd) talks about Etobicoke receiving may not work out in the rest of the city that is laid out in a far less orderly pattern. As we’ve discovered over and over again here in post-amalgamated Toronto, what’s good for Etobicoke may not be good for East York. Money saved in one former city may not be possible in another.

And the ever changing amount of savings should also serve as a yellow flag of caution. All throughout last year’s municipal campaign, pro-privatization candidates trumpeted the $49 million Toronto would save going private with their garbage collection as reported by the C.D. Howe Institute. Under closer scrutiny, that report’s methodology was called into question. Now we’re hearing $8 million/year west of Yonge. Or maybe $6 million. $2 million isn’t being ruled out. What’s next? Well actually, we’re not going to save any money doing this…

And frankly, if the likes of Councillor Doug Ford can blow off $7.8 million or the city pays to police officers for paid duty overseeing construction sites and the like (“Keep in mind [paid-duty costs represent] one-half of 1 per cent of the construction projects that we have to pay for,” the councillor said), where’s the reasoning for undertaking such a massive change of operation in collecting our garbage? What will his response be at next week’s council meeting when a fellow councillor points out that an $8 million saved privatizing garbage collection amounts to about 1% of the near $800 million shortfall the city’s facing? Blustery dismissiveness, I’m guessing.

With no firm or substantive savings to tout and the only improved customer service to point to is the assurance that privatization will mean no more garbage strikes like we saw in the summer of 2009, it’s hard to see this as anything but ideological. According to the Toronto Star’s David Rider, at Tuesday’s town hall meeting “Minnan-Wong said the contract would have ‘continuation of service’ provisions to ensure that, even if the contractors’ workers went on strike, the trash would get picked up in the privatized district.” In other words, in contracting out garbage collection, the city would insist that the winning bid include a provision that would bring in scabs to cross a picket line in the case of a strike, thereby rendering the power of collective bargaining null and void.

Huzzah! Questions linger about what if any savings taxpayers will see. We can’t say for sure if they’ll notice any difference in how their trash is collected. As continued innovation in recycling? Like Councillor Minnan-Wong has said, social engineering isn’t really our job. But we do know one thing. Privatization is going to stick it to the union. Guaranteed.Spite based policy making. In tough times, is there anything more satisfying?

stinkily submitted by Cityslikr