Trash Talk

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

11 thoughts on “Trash Talk

  1. I do not know the answer to the problems of waste management in Toronto. I do know that anyone who says the answer is simple, obviously played too much football without a helmet.

  2. From an anecdotal point of view…. in my town they contracted out the garbage collection to private interests and boy, is the result smelly. For the most part the dumpsters are emptied in a timely manner(we don’t have house by house collection here) but that’s it. Large items are left lying around, the dropped stuff flies down the road in the wind and witches’ knickers (plastic bags stuck in tree limbs) are abundant….ick. Back in the day when public works collected the trash they would also have guys doing a clean up around the dumpster sites.
    I can’t comment as to which method is more cost effective, but for olfactory reasons, give me the public works guys any day.

  3. Garbage pick up is not rocket science. Anyone (who wishes to do it) can do it. It is not a public works issue, only to the unions. Why over pay someone without a college or university education?

    I’ve lived in several areas with contracted out garbage and it works well and has a very good complaint resolution method.

    When Toronto proper had to cart its garbage and deal with union stupidity, I just carted my bin to the curb for the last two garbage strikes.

    If the union really wanted to show how important they are, have a garbage strike in the middle of January or February.

  4. As the communications director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, I appreciate the reference to our paper on privatization. It’s great that readers of your blog interested in this subject, will have chance to read it. Because we represent the private industry, this blog post suggests that any argument that we’d make is suspect. Actually, as a U.S.-based association, we’re not involved in this debate in Toronto. Still, it seems silly to me to dismiss us in that way…I guess it’s easier for our critics to just dismiss us, then debate specific facts. We’ll let our paper speak for itself. Your readers should know that the arguments for why privatization of solid waste services makes sense aren’t just ours; the paper contains an entire page of third-party citations from universities, think tanks, etc.

    • Dear Mr. Metzger,

      We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke did not single out reports on waste collection from the private sector as suspect. Our point was that any report delivered by anyone with an interest in the privatization debate — and to suggest that you don’t have an interest in what happens here in Toronto since you’re based in the U.S. is a bit disingenuine as any successful move to privatization would surely help your cause — is treated with skepticism by those on the opposite side.

      In fact, just this past Friday we were listening to CUPE’s Mark Ferguson being interviewed on the radio. He was talking about this report from an accounting firm disputing the savings that the city of Toronto is touting in privatizing waste collection in half of the city. Rather than talk about the numbers, the show’s host questioned the validity of the study since it backed the union’s anti-privatization stance.

      In that kind of environment, where any study regardless of how robust can be disputed basically because it was funded by a group with a vested interest in the outcome, it’s difficult to get the best information possible in order to make the ‘right’ decision. That’s what we were trying to get at.

  5. “Why over pay someone without a college or university education?”

    This is an interesting little piece of elitism. Fact is, garbage collection is a profession not unlike being a boxer. You can only do it effectively for so many years before your body can’t handle it anymore, and it doesn’t exactly leave you with a pile of marketable skills when you can’t. However, it does require a certain amount of training and not just anyone can do the job.

    We do not “overpay” (what is a fair wage, anyhow?) for these services but you’d do well to keep in mind that these folks can’t work as long as your average office worker and must retrain themselves when they leave the job. I highly doubt that the private companies provide and encourage these retraining programs for their older employees.

    • Considering that now garbage is not actually picked up physically by people anymore and is another thing that has become automated.

      There are many jobs that are like being a boxer, but they are not compensated like those who happen to work for the city. So everyone who has a job that beats the body, should be paid a “fair wage”. Would you care to figure out how much your coffee or the vegetables on your table would be if farm workers are paid like garbage collectors?

      • I would be happy to pay the real cost of my coffee and vegetables, knowing that someone could make a living wage off bringing them to my table.

  6. The Cost of garbage pick up is going UP under Ford/Minnan Wong to the tune of $7 million. For example; AT an average of $9 per household(given the increase is $6 to 12)and there are about 800,000 households that are NOT apartment buildings. Each year starting 2011 we’ll be paying roughly $7 million more.

  7. And as of today, the move to privatize garbage pick up is done. Let the rejoicing of not having to deal with strikes in the future.

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