Have you ever wondered where your trash goes after your bins are magically emptied each week? Well, after it is picked up by either the San Diego Environmental Services Department or a private hauling company, it’s brought to San Diego’s only functioning landfill: Miramar Landfill. Waste to the tune of 910,000 tons is deposited in this 1,500 acre dump each year. If you’ve ever driven on Interstate 52 near the Miramar border, you’ve felt the bumps created by underground waste and air pocket formation. That freeway is notoriously bumpy because of these problems, necessitating frequent repaving at a considerable cost. Estimates of when the landfill will reach capacity vary, but many agree San Diego’s garbage judgment day is quickly approaching.
It’s important to keep this picture in the back of your mind when thinking about the recent controversies regarding trash collection in the city of San Diego. The current struggle began when Mayor Jerry Sanders announced his intentions to eliminate previous agreements to provide free trash pickup to about 14,200 residences on private streets. City legislation requires San Diego to provide free garbage service to all residents living on public streets, but gives no such privileges to those living on private streets. Sanders’ plan will cut off all private residences currently exempted by agreements made prior to this legislation. But San Diegans about to lose their free service are furious, claiming their payment of equal property taxes should qualify them for equal services.
Only 58 percent of San Diegans actually receive free trash services. Many apartment and condominium complexes are also exempted for logistical reasons. Thus 298,200 households within these complexes or on private streets must contract with private waste management companies at an average cost of $20 per month. Property taxes really have very little to do with the city’s willingness to provide pickup service. The system is certainly lacking in simplicity and fairness, but many city council members have latched onto this outcry and will likely overturn the mayor’s decision.
But considering San Diego’s budget woes, this hardly seems the right time to be whining about losing a free service. Closing the private street loophole, along with other proposed changes, would save the city $1.2 million annually, allowing fewer cuts from other vital services to close our $56.7 million budget gap. The trash system has become an annual $34 million burden on the city.
It’s obvious that something needs to change. The most equitable and fiscally responsible solution would be for everyone to pay a small fee specifically for trash collection. No one would feel their taxes are subsidizing the rest of us. But more importantly, it would associate a concrete cost of waste in the minds of local residents.
We tend to not think about garbage much at all, besides taking our bins to the curb once a week — if that. But trash represents a financial burden as mountainous as Miramar Landfill. It does not have to be this way. The city has already taken promising steps with commercial waste. The City of San Diego Environmental Services Department recently handed out awards to businesses leading the way in waste reduction, recycling and composting. These efforts have decreased the trash flow to Miramar by 300,000 tons in the past two years, extending the landfill’s life by eight years and delaying the inevitable shift to contracting out to a private landfill at an even greater cost.
On the other hand, the confusing and subsidized residential system does little to incentivize waste reduction. A small fee could help people understand the importance and challenges of dealing with waste and possibly help fund citywide residential recycling and composting programs. But to allow San Diego to charge a fee for collection like other cities would require approval by voters in a public referendum.
In the end, the problem is not so much about if or how much we pay for waste, but how much we waste. As much attention needs to be paid to what happens to products after use as before and during. These massive material flows must be more effectively tapped into as a resource. Financial and environmental realities make our current attitude toward waste completely unsustainable.