All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1972

5 Degrees Above Zero

Dr. W. A. Paton is well enough known in the United States and abroad for his work in Accounting and Economics—and well enough known among local garbage collectors—that there’s no need to mention his home town.

The city government in my home town took over the chore of collecting garbage and trash several years ago. Previously this chore was largely taken care of by scores of small operators, keenly competitive. I never had any difficulty in having my garbage, ashes, waste paper, brush from tree trimming, leaves, and other refuse removed promptly and efficiently. The private operators had no special requirements whatever as to packaging, arranging, or locating the rubbish to be carted away. There was no rigid schedule of removal dates; the operator came when the individual householder asked him to come, and where a time of collection had been agreed upon it could be altered by a telephone call.

When the City took over waste collection there was an immediate decline in the quality of the service. The fixed schedule set by the Department of Public Works provided less frequent service than some families desired, but of course no special collection times could be arranged. Moreover, from the outset there have been frequent deviations from the announced schedule. Requirements as to the householder’s procedure became more complex and rigid as time went on. Under one early rule ashes had to be sacked and placed in the garbage cans, instead of being left on the back porch in cartons or other disposable containers. Branches and other brush must now be cut up and placed in sacks of specified size (a very inconvenient, time-consuming procedure). Pebbles and stones will not be removed under any circumstances. Burning paper — or anything else — on the premises is now prohibited, regardless of care and safety precautions taken. The fancy trucks used by the City are large and costly, and equipped with lifts to spare the backs of the accompanying staff. The lifting apparatus is very noisy, being easily heard for a quarter-mile or more. Recently all citizens received a printed document which set forth the rules and directives of the “new refuse collection system” as follows:


On the day of collection a two man set-out crew will bring your refuse containers or tied plastic bags from the back yard to the curb.

Several hours later a drive-collector will come by and place the refuse in the truck. He will serve one side of the street at a time.

After collection, the resident must bring his containers back from the curb to the back yard. If the resident uses tied plastic bags, only the bags will go to the curb and he will have no containers to retrieve.

Plastic bags should be a 2 mill bag such as the Fire Department has for sale.

On the day of collection the containers or tied plastic bags should be in one location, either behind the house, along the side of the house, outside the garage, or at the curb.

Keep your driveway clear!

The combined weight of each individual container and its contents cannot exceed 50 pounds.

Refuse should be available for collection by 7:00 a.m. If your refuse is NOT collected by 4:00 p.m. on your assigned day, please call City Hall, 761-2400 extension 257 so provisions for pickup may be made.

No animal waste will be picked up. When a collection day falls on a holiday, the schedule for the remainder of the week will be one day late, and the extra day will then be made up on Saturday.

These requirements, with the new feature of a “set-out crew,” will obviously make the collection process more complex, more drawn out, and will justify more staff. Note the preemptory “Keep your driveway clear!” No private concern issues such orders, and not even the U.S. Post Office has gone that far. For how long, one wonders, must this be done on the specified day, and must the householder stand guard for hours to make sure the driveway is completely free of cars or other obstacles? Note, too, the arbitrary weight requirement. To be sure that this rule is observed must the householder acquire scales and weigh all cans and sacks used, and perhaps leave some half-filled, where heavy materials are involved? And what is the homeowner supposed to do with the dog dung littering his yard, deposited by roving animals that find the location attractive for the purpose? A side effect of the new rules, already much in evidence, is a marked increase in cans and bags along our streets for lengthy periods, as a result of the difficulty many find in meeting the 7:00 a.m. deadline plus the hours of delay before the truck arrives to make the collection plus the delay — often for several days — before the resident gets around to removing the empty cans from the curb area. The net result is unsightly streets, all over town —visual pollution, to say the least. And empty garbage cans left standing in driveways by the collectors are a nuisance, and may be a hazard, especially after dark.

Like It or Lump It

As almost goes without saying, the city government took over the waste collection business without asking for any advice from individual citizen customers. Moreover, in establishing rules, including those of the “new system,” the people served were given no opportunity to express their opinions. I should add that we are not as yet prohibited from engaging a private rubbish collector, if we can find one — but such action will not reduce the levy for “utilities” service, or the bills for taxes.

The winter of 1971-72 in southeastern Michigan was not characterized by extremely low temperatures, but we did have quite a lengthy spell when the thermometer registered from a bit below zero to 5° above. During this period the refuse collection staff of our Public Works Department calmly announced that they would not report for work on days when the temperature was “5° above zero” or less at the regular reporting hour. And the gang maintained this position all winter, despite a few mild protests from citizens here and there. In my own case my garbage was not touched for one stretch of three successive weeks. I was reminded of the times on the farm when we attended to the chore of milking the cows when the outdoor temperature stood at 20° below, with the thermometer inside the stable door hovering around the zero mark. I suppose this was not in line with good modern practice regarding working conditions.

Why the Popular Support?

One of the signs of the times that continues to puzzle me is the attitude of some people in my neighborhood regarding the sphere of government activity. Despite their personal, first-hand experience with the very objectionable system of municipal garbage and trash collection, many still clamor for more and more interference by government, at all levels, with private business operation, including outright takeover in some fields, and are vociferous in their support of the programs of nationally known “consumer advocates” and other critics of the automobile companies and business corporations generally. They also tend to applaud the continuing barrage of attacks on business — in and out of the legislative halls — by office-holders and candidates with strong socialistic leanings.

Another, and more widespread, attitude to be observed is the indifference, and lack of complaint, regarding the inefficiencies and failures clearly in evidence in fields where government has long been in complete charge. This posture is found among those somewhat sympathetic to private enterprise, as well as among the muddled critics of business and the outright socialists. The realization that it is well-nigh useless to try to induce government officials to mend their ways probably has a bearing. Here I’m reminded of the history of our local water service. Years ago this service was provided by a quasi-private concern, and there was no lack of criticism and complaint. And that the water company took considerable heed of dissatisfaction, even in the case of the specific patron, was obvious. Finally, in line with the trend across the country, the municipality acquired the company’s facilities. From that time on the desires of the individual customer have been completely ignored with respect to water sources, softening, additives, temperature, extensions, and so on, as well as the important matter of rates charged. And the tendency to complain, ask for improved service, and urge lower rates, has gradually faded to the vanishing point.

From time to time, in contemplating the current scene, I get to wondering what it will be like if and when we abandon the free market entirely, and adopt the complete socialist program. What will the Naders and other malcontents do when there are no private business activities left for them to bedevil? 

  • W. A. Paton (1889-1901) was Professor Emeritus of Accounting and Economics, University of Michigan. He was author (or co-author) of a score of books and many articles, largely in the field of accounting.