Trash Matters: About Those Proposed Changes to Garbage and Recycling Schedules 

With the holiday season in full swing and spontaneous weather that turns autumn foliage into cold mildewy blankets, one cannot be blamed for letting the lawn debris pile up. At least that's what I tell myself most years, when the neighbors are taking their Christmas lights down and I'm trudging through a six-inch wall of decomposing leaves to get to my car in the morning.

This year's different, though. When we cranked up our backpack blower last weekend, we were among the first on our street. For someone who usually ends up overpaying someone to vacuum our front lawn into a truck in, like, February, it was a major feat. Most years I'm shamed into action by my fear of judgment, or worse, of a letter from code enforcement. I'm on the ball this year, motivated by a message from the mayor, whose blight reduction strategy has taken a bizarre detour.

click to enlarge What a damn mess
  • What a damn mess

Last week's weekly email from Mayor Strickland's office started on a hopeful note. Great news! We fixed our garbage collection issues! Everything's been running like clockwork. Well, of course it has. The bar was low. When you reward contracts to the lowest bidder, you get what you pay for. Garbage collection is thankless work: If you don't pay well, there's no reason to care. Hire the people, give them the tools they need, and compensate them appropriately. Do this in literally any situation and there's a decent chance you'll succeed. The bad news is: Now that we know how much it costs, we have to stop doing all the stuff that was working. Makes perfect sense.

There are two possible scenarios here. One, the mayor's people miscalculated the long-term cost of bringing the job in-house, hiring the people and purchasing the equipment necessary to do the work properly. Or, they overestimated the community's enthusiasm for paying more for a basic public service. So they requested a more than $7 per-month rate hike that Memphis City Council, unsurprisingly, did not approve. I'm neither a politician nor an economist, but increasing the cost of something by more than 30 percent at once seems like a tough sell. Yes, Strickland said they "may well have to" propose a rate increase, but that's about the equivalent of your dad saying "we'll see" when you ask to borrow the car.

So they're going to lay off 275 sanitation workers. They're going to cut back services to what appears to be an even lower level than before solid waste collection was "fixed" in Memphis. Happy holidays to everyone who wished for a return to the good old days of spotty pickup and broken bins! Starting January 6th, there will be no more outside-the-cart pickup. Recycling will get picked up once a month, so pounds and pounds of recyclable materials will end up in a landfill. Sorry, it's the only way, says the mayor. Better get those leaf bags to the curb by the end of the month or else they'll be there forever.

This is a bluff, right? It has to be because I am struggling to reconcile "Memphis has momentum" and "brilliant at the basics" with "we cannot afford to pick up your trash."

"I'm never a fan of raising rates, but this is our only option" might sound more sincere if I hadn't just read about yet another developer getting tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives. None of those guys can chip in, so we'll just wait around and let the trash pile up for a few weeks or months or years until city council comes around on the rate increase. Sounds like a plan. Maybe one hard rain will be enough to remind them streets flood when storm drains are full of leaves that didn't get bagged because nobody is coming to pick them up. Here's hoping the pothole budget is as flush as it was last year.

Jen Clarke is a digital marketing strategist and an unapologetic Memphian.

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