After increasing struggles the last few years, the city of Columbia’s refuse collection services got hit hard by the coronavirus. Now faced with a staffing and financial crisis, something has to give.

In fact, it has been announced that curbside recycling pickup will be discontinued indefinitely in the new city budget that begins Oct. 1. It looks like providing free trash and recycling bags might be discontinued next.

Also back on the table is a possible conversion to roll carts, an idea opponents got on the local ballot four years ago to prohibit and voters then passed. It has been mentioned that maybe the city should get out of the trash business altogether, allowing residents to choose from other local providers.

I was perusing Facebook the other night and was reminded of the very strong opinions out there about trash, particularly the roll cart idea. Both sides seem to have valid points.

In an informal poll at my place this week, there was one absolutely for roll carts, one probably, one not sure or probably not and one who doesn’t care since they are more into producing trash than disposing of it.

So, it would likely work for us, but should the whole town be changed to roll carts? I have a strong opinion, too: I have no idea. That is, I have no idea what is best for the majority of residents. I have no idea what is best for your household, either, dear reader. In fact, ideally, you should be able to choose for your own household.

Let residents, or maybe neighborhoods as a bloc, decide if they want bags on the ground, roll carts or to be able to opt for a shared dumpster in a convenient location. Perhaps, each variety of service would (shock!) have different rates associated.

We have politicized trash because the city government maintains a monopoly on this service. Households must subscribe to their service. Even a hard-core minimalist who produces essentially no household waste must also unfairly subscribe.

City Hall decides for us what set rate you pay, the way you may put it out on the curb and even on what day of the week — all non-negotiable factors.

You cannot currently choose to hire any other provider, even if you wanted to. This inflexibility certainly does not jibe with the expectations of modern life.

Now, there are things we decide collectively such as criminal codes and utilities that are not flexible due to heavy infrastructure constraints and their commoditized nature, such as electric or sewer connections. But trash pickup depends on a sanitary landfill on one end and a trash customer on the other; while who and by what method it gets delivered to the landfill is not set in stone.

Trash may seem like a mundane thing that many people take for granted, but this is a vital service that has serious sanitation and public health ramifications.

While on the recycling front, weekly curbside pickup is (or rather, was) certainly a related convenience and has value, but it is not as vital for sanitation and all. With the immediate staffing crunch, the city refuse service is prudent to refocus on trash pickup as job No. 1, while leaning on us to deliver our own recyclables.

Most households that recycle at least rinse out containers, so storing them in a garage or closet for a couple weeks or more is probably OK. In our household, somebody has been grabbing it once every week or so and takes it to one of the recycling drop-off locations, combining the task with other errands.

Environmental folks are rightly concerned about the effects of recycling rates if it is less convenient for residents. More recycling drop-off stations would be a must and an opportunity for a public education campaign.

It is time to reimagine trash pickup in Columbia.

I hope the City Council does put all options on the table: bags and/or roll carts. Resume curbside recycling; maybe reduce it to once a month, and/or increase recycling drop-off stations around town.

That includes whether the city needs to remain the sole provider of trash pickup in town. The council’s plate is already full, and in this era of pandemic and urgent police reform, its meeting agendas are overflowing. By letting residents choose other providers, it should not be seen as City Hall admitting some kind of failure but allowing an evolution to take place.

The current refuse system is sick and outdated. It has taken a real crisis to finally necessitate structure reform. We have an opportunity to go from an outdated, monolithic, politicized refuse system to one that provides realistic options to meet the 21st-century needs and expectations of our community.


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