The uneasy future of trash disposal

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 29, 2007

The business of waste disposal, as we know it, may be in for an abrupt change.

It was about 30 years that eight localities —

Southampton and Isle of Wight counties, Franklin, Suffolk, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth — formed the Southeastern Public Service Authority to meet the region’s garbage-disposal needs. It was designed to restrict the disposal of commercial and residential trash from those localities to SPSA-operated facilities.

The plan banked on SPSA functioning as a virtual monopoly, which, officials said at the time, would keep costs down and maintain a steady flow of trash into SPSA landfills, allowing SPSA to accurately plan the size and location of their properties.

That design, called flow control, was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. The high court reversed itself recently, and SPSA, not surprisingly, wants its member localities to re-embrace flow control, requiring haulers of commercial waste to use SPSA disposal facilities. Private waste companies, backed by the businesses they service, are lobbying localities to resist the temptation.

Southampton County has adopted flow control. The Franklin City Council has set a public hearing on the matter for Monday.

Normally, we would agree on the need to keep government meddling at a minimum. In this case, however, we tend to agree with SPSA that garbage disposal is analogous to a public utility.

Just as government regulates power companies to control the effusion of power lines and substations, so should local governments have the right to regulate the trash stream that originates in their jurisdictions.

Without flow control, officials setting solid waste disposal plans cannot ever be certain of the size they should plan for their landfills. If they plan small landfills, what are they to do when garbage haulers (for any number of reasons) choose to quit hauling trash to private dumps? If they plan larger landfills, anticipating trash from local businesses, they put themselves at risk of extortion by haulers who threaten to take their trash elsewhere if their rates aren’t lowered.

In fact, that’s what happened to SPSA after the original Supreme Court decision in 1993. SPSA was organized and incorporated under the assumption that its landfill would handle all local trash at a specified rate. When the court’s decision allowed private haulers to take commercial trash elsewhere, SPSA was forced to offer those haulers a much lower rate in order to preserve some of the viability of its business model.

Regulating waste disposal as a sort of public utility would give municipal planners a better handle on the future they’re trying to predict.

Another, equally important, point is that residential customers are subsidizing businesses under the current plan. Citizens are not allowed to contract with private haulers to take away their garbage and are therefore captives of the government garbage monopoly.

The low rates commercial entities receive as a result of the leverage they gain from freedom of choice translate into huge price increases for residential customers.

To be sure, consumers will see increases in the price of goods as a result of the higher cost of doing business. In a free market, though, the cost of goods should be reflective of the cost of doing business; the former should not be artificially depressed by burdening taxpayers with the latter.

That’s corporate welfare on a local level.