I, For One, Would Like to Welcome our Garbage Overlords

[Two trucks, one corner.]
I'm tickled that Saint Paul is finally moving forward with organized trash collection, especially in the face of an organized (how ironic!) opposition movement that is trying to derail the city's efforts.

(Props to the Council, the Mayor's Office, and the Mac-Grove neighborhood group for working so hard on this.)

There are a lot of great reasons why organizing the city's garbage pickup is long overdue, and I go into them quite a bit in my original Minnpost article on this topic.

Here are the punchlines from that December, 2015 article:
The main benefits of organizing involve cost, energy and efficiency of geography. The Mac-Grove proposal would replace the current unorganized system with a geographically balanced “consortium.” Each of the city’s current 19 garbage haulers would be allocated a geographic “share” of the city, and instead of serving houses scattered through the city, each existing hauler would get a geographically limited area. Each hauler would be assigned a specific neighborhood, and instead of three or five trucks traveling down neighborhood’s streets and alleys each week, you would only have one.
Beyond the energy and cost benefits, the current system masks some more hidden consequences of the free market. For example, because alleys are all privately constructed, they don’t meet uniform standards, and are rarely designed to withstand the pressure of large trucks. Yet the existing system drastically increases the number of trucks that run down alleys, and garbage trucks are particularly hard on asphalt.
The average truck weighs 32 tons and gets 3 miles to the gallon. While there’s a complicated relationship between weight, vehicle design and road wear, studies suggest that each truck is the “wear and tear” equivalent of 1,125 automobile trips. 
The case is pretty solid, and if you're still not convinced, let Ed Kohler explain it to you.

But now that we're on the precipice of organized garbage, there are two other big reasons why I love the city's plan to move forward with garbage organization. And they're less straightforward.

1. Addressing Inequality

[No Dumping sign off West 7th Street.]
Saint Paul is a deeply unequal city. Ride a bicycle from the East Side to St. Anthony Park, from Frogtown to Highland, or anywhere around the downtown poverty periphery, and Saint Paul's big contrasts become visible. In some parts of town, quiet well-kept fancy houses; in other parts, still-pretty-quiet-but-not-always-quiet more-unkempt homes and apartments. The city's gaps break down pretty cleanly along age, class, race, and ethnic lines, and it's always crucial to think about the city as a whole.

The biggest problem with the old garbage system is that it "worked well" for the wealthy parts of town, and left the poor parts of the city behind. For example, "dumping" is a big issue in many parts of the city, like Frogtown, the North End, or the West Side. In these places, people with few resources simply left all kinds of crap out in alleys, boulevards, bluffs, or ubiquitous vacant lots.

Having an organized system will do a lot to make sure our struggling parts of the city don't look like trash half the time. It's a problem that's really not visible from the landscaped yards of the wealthy parts of town, but for a big chunk of Saint Paul, cleaning up the dumping problem is a big deal.

2. Demonstrate Collective Freedom

[City of Minneapolis trash bins in North Minneapolis.]
The second big thing about the coming trash revolution is that it proves that Saint Paul can actually do stuff. Now more than ever, we need our cities to step up and fill the governance void left behind the wake of the dysfunctional Federal level and fragile State.

In many ways, I think doing things at the city level is a good shift because I like governance that is smaller scale, and "closer" to the citizenry. (See also my post-Trump post...)

In other ways, increasing reliance on city level government is a bad thing because of the fractured and fragmented municipal landscape, which allows wealth to flee to exclusionary low-tax enclaves and leaves concentrated poverty behind in core cities and (increasingly) first-ring suburbs. There's also the problem of low engagement and turnout in our city governments...

So it's important to find things that cities can actually do without stretching their budgets to the breaking point. We need concrete steps that allow cities to move toward ambitious sustainability and equity goals.

To put it another way, we don't just need "freedom from government", we also need the "freedom to act collectively." Organizing garbage is a great example of this larger kind of freedom. I am confident that, once it starts to work, once we have an effective organized garbage system in place, it'll be a shining example of what Saint Paul can accomplish if it gets its act together.

Swelling Blue Bin Pride

[Recycling is up about 30% since the city replaced the old system.]
In fact, I only began thinking about this as the city finally "rolled out" its new recycling bin program back in January.

If you live in Saint Paul, you probably recall the initial hiccups, but after a long time lobbying the city, the city's contracted recycling non-profit, Eureka, got the funding from the city to start using modern recycling bins back in the winter. Prior to that, there had been a more haphazard "tub" recycling system in place where individual citizens would have to pick up their own recycling tubs from local neighborhood groups and them put them out once per week. The trucks would then (using two people) go around and pick up all the recycling which was placed along the curb once per week.

There were a bunch of problems with the old system including the lack of tubs, or the way that they would fall apart, but the biggest one was the problem with storage. Because you only put out the tub once per week, you couldn't "store" your recycling all through the week. With the new big bin system, you can toss your recycling out whenever you like. For me, that makes a big difference. I can carry down my recycling whenever I am heading out the door, instead of only being able to put it out there on Monday evenings.

More than that, I just love seeing all the blue bins lined up in alleys and along the streets. It's a great sign of things to come, and a symbol of Saint Paul's actually-existing civic competence.  When I spend time in Minneapolis, you glance into the alleys or driveways of people and see three bins lined up behind every home: a trash bin, a recycling bin, and a compost bin. It's amazing, and the city has a great public engagement program aimed at minimizing all of these waste streams. This is what city's should be doing in the 21st century.

And when I see Saint Paul's new blue recycling bins all along the alleys, I get a glimpse of Saint Paul's bright future.

[Soon these blue bins in a Frogtown alley will have a trash-filled friend to hang out with.]

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