Juneau's garbage plan off to a good beginning

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Last week the Juneau Assembly took an overt step toward solving the capital city's solid-waste problem. This step was the culmination of many years of study, which most recently included the hiring of consultants to evaluate where we are, where we are going, and how we may want to change direction.

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As anyone who drives to or from the Mendenhall Valley knows, the pile of garbage at Juneau's landfill is growing. This is to be expected now that garbage is no longer being incinerated, because the machine once used for this purpose was deemed environmentally inadequate for this job a few years ago.

It may come as a surprise to some that the collection and disposal of garbage is not a public service in Juneau. But if you've ever paid a garbage bill you know that the city was not the payee. Arrow Refuse and Waste Management are the two businesses that perform the job of collecting and disposing of our garbage. Waste Management has also provided the modest volunteer recycling center that an increasing number of Juneau residents have taken to using to get rid of their garbage.

The plan the Assembly adopted the other night focuses in large degree on recycling. I have been recycling as much as I can since I moved to Juneau in 1991 as a legislative aide. It isn't easy, but the results are dramatic and obvious. If you remove the glass, aluminum, and cardboard from what you throw away, you'll immediately notice the weight of those garbage bins decrease. Once you start taking out white paper, mixed paper, and tin cans, you may be shocked at how much less you're sending to the landfill. But it isn't easy. You have to separate everything out, and then take the time and effort to drive it out to Lemon Creek. On a windy and rainy day, it isn't the most pleasant experience, but there is the satisfaction of knowing that the ever-increasing pile of garbage grew that much less because of your efforts.

Some people don't have the time or the transportation to allow them to recycle their own materials. Others choose not to do so. The reasons for this may be philosophical or economic. Some people think recycling is silly, but I hazard to guess that the basis for their thinking derives from economics. That is because the true cost of not recycling is externalized what with the way the system currently works. If the true cost of filling up a finite landfill space isn't incorporated into the cost of packaging, or into the cost of garbage collection, then there is no incentive to recycle. It becomes an altruistic endeavor, and one can hardly expect altruism to solve a problem of universal magnitude.

It is only by internalizing the true cost of not recycling that we can expect most, if not all, residents to change their behaviors to incorporate recycling. There is value in both the non-wasted raw materials and in the prolonged life of the landfill which will have to be used to dispose of the many forms of garbage that can not be recycled.

The proposal adopted by the Assembly envisions the city taking over the public-need certificate that allows rates for garbage collection and disposal to be set at a given level. The two private firms that currently collect garbage and house it in the landfill will be in a position to use their private-sector expertise and efficiency to perform these tasks, and the newly expanded task of curbside collection under contract by the city. The enterprise will only work if the rates are set reasonably and if new burdensome costs are not imposed on the enterprise.

Two Assembly members voted against the recycling proposal, and I understand their concerns about expanding bureaucracy and the creation of new, expensive public-sector jobs. But there is no way to solve this problem without embracing the finite life of the landfill, and the essential role that recycling will play as we seek to extend its life.

I predict that once most Juneau residents are given the proper economic incentives to recycle it will become second nature, just like not littering has for all but uncivilized members of our community. It is the way of the future, and it will make a solid, and not wasteful, contribution to our on-going quality of life. The plan may need some tweaking, but we're off to a good start.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan.

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