Trash Talking and Listening

Trash Talking and Listening

The headline writer must have had a field day with this one.

The one-year retrospective on Hillsborough County’s switch from customer-selected trash cans and small county-supplied recycling bins to county-supplied rolling carts for both waste streams was . . . well, ripe for a pun or two.  The story by Mike Salinero in Sunday’s Tampa Tribune was appropriately titled “New garbage carts are on a roll,” with a subtitle noting that initially the change had been “dumped on” by critics.


But beyond the pained chuckle elicited by the story, Hillsborough County’s efforts to put this program on track provide something of a model for counties and municipalities (and other government agencies) contemplating major changes in services that are tightly interwoven with people’s daily lives.

I don’t know very many people who think a lot about their trash (though I do know a few). Most of us probably adopt something of an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the subject. The indoor waste repositories don’t typically occupy prominent places in our living spaces, and the nastiest of them generally have lids or hide inside cabinets. After all, we’re talking trash here.

In many households, small-scale skirmishes over taking out the trash are regular events. In some, there’s a family member who has admitted defeat and is always at the disposal of his/her relatives when the trash needs to be taken out. One way or another, the trash moves from inside the house to outside, from smaller to larger containers.

Then it has to get to the truck.

I once got into considerable political trouble for saying (accurately) that our city’s solid waste crews were at greater risk of physical injury than our police officers. That was before the pressure to do more with less had grown through private firms competing on price and municipalities cutting their labor force to survive the economic downturn, so it’s likely to be even more true today. The dangers include the risks of injury picking up heavy cans, wounds from loose trash and yard waste, impatient drivers cutting too close, and the perils presented by working quickly and intimately with machines designed to crush large quantities of material.

For a number of years now, there has been something of a national movement to standardize and more fully automate the trash-collection process. Trucks, not people, pick up the heavy cans. Operators can throw levers from the safety of the cab rather than the business end of the trash truck. After a substantial initial investment, costs are likely to be reduced with the reduction in injuries and lost days of work. Additionally (and here the news can be viewed more negatively), fewer employees can get the work done just as if not more quickly than the larger workforces before.

But solid waste services aren’t just about what happens once the trash is at the curb. One must deal with the trash producers themselves, especially the ordinary renters and homeowners who also must transport the garbage to where the truck can pick it up.

Change the number of cans, or their shape and size, and one is sure to stir up opposition. Make what are perceived as a few mistakes along the way (like replacing consumer’s smaller cans with a much larger cart that, at first encounter, seems large enough for the consumer to fit in, rather than sized for the garbage the consumer will put in), and the transition can grind to a halt . . . especially if substantial political opposition is generated.

What the folks in Solid Waste in Hillsborough County did is what we all need to do when faced with complaints.

They listened.

In some cases, they simply listened with concern and waited to see how things sorted out. There were early complaints about those large carts, but most of them dissipated after folks had a chance to use them for a few weeks.

In other cases, they made adjustments, making smaller carts available for those who decided that the big cans really were too much.

Ultimately, the success of the program probably owes both to some good research and smart decisions about the way the service was delivered and the care with which the county listened.

Any major change in an important service is going to generate opposition.

How we handle that opposition, how we respect the experience of those who complain, will determine whether the change can be successful.