Turning a trash mountain into a mole hill

Atlanta's garbage crisis offers a heap of opportunities

Atlanta's trash problems have ripened into a stew so nasty it's difficult to ignore.

Residential garbage fees went up $50 this week. The city hasn't collected up to $40 million in those fees. Live Oak, the landfill that receives most of the city's trash, could be shut down in a year-and-a-half. And a slew of companies are attempting to build solid waste transfer stations in neighborhoods that are as warm to the idea as Lester Maddox was to interracial marriage.

Council members are responding to the mini-crisis with a spate of proposed overhauls of Atlanta's solid waste laws. It's difficult to tell now whether those ideas will just make the problems worse, or will lead the city toward a solution that makes sense for both taxpayers and the environment.

The great garbage debate already has taken one predictable turn: Every time a city service crisis pops up, someone seems to cry out for privatization. This time, that someone is Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, who plans to introduce legislation at the July 16 City Council meeting to allow companies to bid on taking over the city's collection and disposal service.

Says Archibong: "I want to look to the market place and see what a private company would come back with in terms of how they would handle that function."

But City Councilman Derrick Boazman, who's rumbled with solid-waste companies over landfills in his south Atlanta district, is sternly opposed to privatization.

"More times than not, it does not produce any cost savings," says Boazman, who quickly points to the city's disastrous and now defunct drinking water privatization scheme. "What we do know is, and United Water is proof of this, the way private providers achieve cost savings is by firing a lot of workers, then require workers [who haven't been fired] to work double shifts."

He argues that the city should protect trash collectors from privatization but contract out bill collectors, who have allowed residents and businesses to avoid paying more than $40 million. The collection shortfall contributed to City Council's vote Feb. 17 to raise residential garbage fees by an average of $50 a year.

At least one City Council member sees the crisis as an opportunity to push for a new program that the city should have adopted long ago. Clair Muller is proposing, among other things, to copy Decatur's "pay as you throw" system, which requires people to pay more if they produce more garbage. Under pay-as-you-throw, recycling is free, which creates an incentive to either reduce trash or recycle.

In Decatur's version of the program, which was launched in 1998, residents pay for special garbage bags — the bigger the bag, the more it costs. The more bags residents fill up and place on the curb, the more they pay. But recycled materials go into a separate container and are picked up for free.

Decatur's program processes almost double the paper, glass and plastic per household than does Atlanta's program, and has saved the city from having to pay for dumping 1,000 tons of trash each year, according to Decatur officials. Pay-as-you-throw has enjoyed similar results in other cities, including Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle.

"I'm very much a proponent of recycling more and trying to push volume-based billing for what we do pick up, because it's only by education and enforcement that you change people's habits," Muller says. "And ... we'll have to pay fewer tipping fees at the landfill because we're not taking as much true garbage there."

Muller, chairwoman of the City Utilities Committee, looks favorably on Archibong's privatization idea. But Archibong's bill risks becoming another Band-Aid if it doesn't include incentives to reduce what goes to the landfills. Muller's bill doesn't require privatization.

Pay-as-you-throw will have to overcome some of its own hurdles. Some advocates for the poor don't like it because large low-income families might have to pay high fees if they don't recycle. But experience in other cities shows that overall costs go down because the system encourages residents to find ways to reduce their garbage.