A fight based on strongly-worded news releases erupted in March between the US-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), organizations that represent, respectively, the interests of private and public sector waste managers.
The NSWMA release, dated March 23, 2011, claims a study it funded shows, “Privatized waste services generate significant cost savings and lower financial risks for budget-stretched municipalities, and they are safer and more environmentally protective than their public sector counterparts.” NSWMA President and CEO Bruce Parker is quoted saying that waste services are “among the ideal services to privatize during a time when municipalities face declining revenues and severe budget shortfalls.”
According to the study (available at www.everydayenvironmentalists.org/privatization), privatizing waste offers saves costs by 20 to 40 percent because private companies have the “economies of scale” to spread investment, environmental protection and procurement costs across multiple contracts and facilities, and because “they are not hindered by governmental bureaucracies.”
NSWMA notes that cities with the highest recycling rates – including San Francisco and Seattle – have fully privatized recycling. NSWMA states that the private sector has “more experience and financial ability to assume and manage risks in volatile commodities markets.”
“The private sector also is responsible for innovations like single-stream recycling, which have helped to double Americans’ recycling rates in the last 20 years,” NSWMA says. (For a different perspective on single-stream recycling, see the Cover Story on page 8.) The association says that solid waste services operated by local governments have an injury rate more than four times greater than their private counterparts, and that the private waste sector is “one of the fastest-growing adopters of alternative fuels and hybrid vehicle technologies to reduce emissions, and is more likely to use further energy-saving technologies, such as on-board route management software.”
Twisting the knife further, the release offers that “employees of public waste collection services are first in line for new jobs when a municipality transitions to private sector collection, because these employees already are skilled and familiar with local routes.”
SWANA couldn’t let these claims go challenged. It accuses the NSWMA of “distorting the facts and attempting to confuse the public.” SWANA says the most glaring deficiency in the NSWMA release is the lack of recognition or respect for local governments’ essential responsibility for solid waste management in their jurisdictions. This rebuke alludes to a 2007 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of “flow control” – which allows local governments to direct waste processing and disposal facilities of their choice.
SWANA’s Executive Director and CEO John Skinner, Ph.D., cites government’s historic role in protecting public health, adding that waste “is not a commodity like soap detergent or cable television that can be left to the whims of short-term profit and loss decisions.”
This statement harkens back to the days when government took over waste management as a matter of “sanitation” in the face of unhygienic disposal practices. One is also reminded of the corruption and organized crime that plagued unfettered private waste services, as is carefully described by Harold Crooks in his books Dirty Business and Giants of Garbage. Skinner politely skips this argument, saying that SWANA supports privatization as long as it’s supportive of local government’s public service authority.
The release quotes one SWANA board member on the problem that some private waste haulers cut services in areas because of limited housing density and long travel distances. Another board member notes that when public and private parties bid under defined terms and conditions, “the public party almost always wins, even in highly unionized utilities.” Yet another says that “half of the [NSWMA study] references were a decade old; one was published in 1977 and others were newspaper articles and NSWMA staff papers. They certainly do not reflect the current technical literature on the subject, and do not support the overly broad generalizations in the report.”
What is one to make of all this?
There’s certainly validity in the perspectives of both organizations. The NSWMA is correct that most innovation comes from the private sector. SWANA is correct that the public interest cannot be contracted out, and must be safeguarded by elected government.
But efficiency is not the special property of either the private or public sector; absent competition, both will become rent-seeking monopolies, prone to corruption. The public interest and the environment are likely best served by a hybrid public/private system, though from the current hodge-podge one might prefer to see emerge more government “steering” and less “rowing.” A current trend that works well is when government sets goals and creates competitive bid processes not only for waste collection but also design-build-operate contracts for facilities, such as the high-tech recycling, composting, and waste-to-energy plants that increasingly dot the landscape.
A major challenge facing both the NSWMA and SWANA (and Canadian waste-related associations) is how they will re-invent themselves if product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs are introduced in various jurisdictions or even nationally. What will be the role of traditional waste haulers?
Figuring this will be better accomplished via enlightened conversation, not news releases.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org