Economic slowdown, weekly trash pickup: We'll live


Ah, twice-a-week garbage collection. It was nice while it lasted - 55 years, apparently - but it's time to give up this municipal luxury. It's time to hold our noses and pry this one out of our cold, Hefty Cinch Sak'd fingers.

As the city looks to slash spending - Mayor Sheila Dixon on Friday projected a $65 million gap in fiscal 2010 between what the city will take in and what it will spend to provide the current level of services - going from twice- to once-a-week garbage pickup is an idea whose time has come.

Previous mayors have proposed this over the years, but somehow, the practice survived. It's a nice perk - rarely do cities of Baltimore's size collect trash more than once a week. But now, with the economic downturn promising to be deep, if something has to go - or rather, some things are going to have to go - this seems like a relatively painless item to put on the chopping block.

For one thing, we shouldn't be making so much garbage.

Already, with the ease of single-stream recycling that went into effect this January, more of what we discard should be headed to the yellow bins rather than the landfill. The Department of Public Works said the amount of stuff being recycled is up 35 percent already, and it should go up further in January when even more items can be added to that stream - yogurt cups, for example, as well as juice cartons, peanut butter jars, plastic cups, aluminum pie plates and other containers that previously had to go into the trash.

"When you look at everything that can be recycled, what do you have left at that point?" said Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher. "Food scraps, pizza boxes, dirty paper plates, Chinese carryout containers, things like that."

The department is considering a new schedule in which trash pickup will drop to once a week, but recyclables will be collected weekly, rather than twice a month as they are currently. It will also look at revamping garbage truck routes that haven't changed in decades, despite population shifts, in search of greater efficiencies, Kocher said.

As it happens, because of two successive quirks of the calendar this month, I inadvertently got a preview of what a once-a-week trash collection would be like. Tuesday is one of my pickup days, but with Election Day and Veterans Day idling the garbage trucks in the past two weeks, I was down to just a Friday collection.

It wasn't a pretty picture - it didn't help that I had missed my last recycling day, so my yellow bins were overflowing, or that my kitchen disposal has been broken for a couple of weeks - but neither was it a hazmat disaster.

No one I talked to with the city last week could remember how Baltimore started picking up trash twice a week, but the ordinance that put it in city code dates back to 1953 - long enough, as one City Hall observer noted, for people to view it as a "God-given entitlement." In Philadelphia, for example, it's once a week, as it is in Washington, except for a couple of neighborhoods with smaller houses, like Georgetown and Adams Morgan.

"I think it really comes down to the idea of hot summer days when there was no air conditioning and the smell of fish and crabs wafting in the breeze," said Kocher, who as it turns out is the same age as the twice-a-week ordinance. "But it's a different world today."

Truly. Like many, I've developed an increasingly intimate relationship with my trash as a result of having to separate out the recyclables. It's forced me to consider consumption - and the discarding of its remains - in a way that I didn't when everything went in a trash bag or can for dumping on the curb twice a week.

I am a rabid recycler, something that drives my husband crazy, as I whip through the house the night before pickup, ripping magazines out of his hands and emptying and flattening boxes. But now I'm thinking that recycling also has had the effect of lulling us into thinking that we've solved the entire problem.

We haven't, though, and we won't until we deal with the other end of the stream, all the stuff we buy in the first place: The disposable paper towels that have replaced reusable dishrags or sponges. The excessively packaged things - salad greens in a plastic bag in a clamshell, individually wrapped cookies in a plastic tray in a cardboard box. And don't get me started on packing peanuts, or those sealed-air bubbles that Amazon uses.

Recently, the New Yorker has been sending me gentle missives - that's the house style, after all - suggesting I consider subscribing to a digital version of the magazine. It claims it will be exactly like the familiar paper one, but of course it won't - all the pages will be there, but none of the tactile pleasure of flipping through the glossy paper, in bed or on a treadmill, reading real print rather than pixels.

I know I should switch, and I sense I will at some point. It's the last magazine I subscribe to, and even at that I'm sure I'm still personally responsible for entire forests of dead trees. I still have half-read New Yorkers from years ago, in boxes in the basement that have moved along with me to every new home, so confident am I that I'll find a spare 18 months in which to finish them.

So I suppose someone will have to pry the paper version out of my fingers as well. Which means the unread magazines will fill up my in box instead; better that, no doubt, than a garbage truck.

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