Trash can be beautiful. And I don’t mean in the artistic sense, though that’s an option and one that sheds light on the larger question of what to do with garbage.
I recently heard a podcast on garbage incineration, how it’s widespread in Europe as a way to generate electricity and reduce the need for landfills. The discussants were wondering why America doesn’t do more of that and concluded that progress was barred by a combination of NIMBYism and the fervor of recycling enthusiasts.
Whether you agree with the producer of that segment or not, they are certainly correct that this industry is stagnant, and this rigidity results in plenty of unnecessary inefficiencies. But I think the real low hanging fruit is in waste collection.
The other day I saw a garbage truck, and it struck me that the institution of “garbage day” is just a hold-over from the days before apps and algorithms were available to efficiently route garbage trucks to where they’re needed.
For that matter, the trucks could be different; the service level could be different, and surely resources could be saved.
There are plenty of ways garbage could be picked up, and they could all coexist next to one another. Different strokes for different towns and different folks.
This sort of competition would be beautiful. The results would be better service, less room for corruption, clean trucks taking away your garbage when it’s necessary and saving resources* in the process.
Rich neighborhoods could have sleek electric wagons grabbing their trash cans from the side of the garage in the middle of the night. In less wealthy and rural neighborhoods, something less like a limo and more like Uber could give the out-of-work or underemployed construction worker a way to pay for their truck.
The problems are surely due to regulations that limit innovation and competition. So, how could we open up this market? Debate and committees is the correct response, but it’s not the only one.
“If I were a Silicon Valley millionaire,” I thought while driving past that truck, “I could change this, and probably make a buck doing it.”
So here’s the exciting idea: A wealthy libertarian-type benefactor (or even a non-profit funded through a Kickstarter campaign — don’t forget to comment on this article!) could make a bet with the mayor of some city (which would need certain features to be a viable first candidate) that privatization would work.
The bet goes like this:
- Pass legislation that opens up genuine competition in trash collection in one year.
- Private garbage companies spring into existence and do a better job at a better price (as determined by a study I will pay for, conducted by a consultant you will pick).
- If (2) does not happen, we will pick up the tab at your current provider for one year.
Obviously, our first hurdle is structuring the bet property to avoid problems like Waste Management abusing their position. And that’s probably a big problem. But here’s the thing: if someone can figure this out, and motivate the right people to contribute, it will:
- Make it easier for an electorate/politicians to face the risk that something will go horribly wrong, and
- Create a profit opportunity for the (probably) tech billionaire backing this.
Opening up waste collection to competition allows for the possibility of the next Uber or AirBnB being in the garbage business.
And for that matter, this betting approach might be used for other industries. For Uber to use this approach would be even easier. They would have to pay for a study on transportation in some city, and could offer to bet some lump sum to the city if competition doesn’t work.
* “Saving resources” has practically become a verbal tic with me. I use it as a synonym for the much less evocative “reducing costs.”
Rick Weber is a professor of economics at Farmingdale State College. He blogs at Notes on Liberty, where this idea first appeared.