Commentary: Business of recycling follows parallel path of trash collection

The exodus of Sedona Recycles from Cottonwood shows the parallel paths recycling and garbage collection have taken over the past 30 years.

There was a time when garbage collection was the exclusive domain of municipal government and lumped into a monthly water/sewer/garbage bill. If you lived outside the city limits, you hauled your own garbage to the landfill, or you burned it in a barrel.

One of my first jobs ever as a kid, in fact, was as a garbage collector. It was a two-man job. My partner and I would take a different part of town every day, drive down the alleys, and manually dump the contents of garbage cans into a dump truck. When full, we would then drive the garbage to a huge trench out in the desert, dump the garbage, and light it on fire. Every few months, the city would bury the pit over and dig a new one for us to begin the process anew.

This was the 1970s and eventually the practice of dumping garbage into open pits and burning it became illegal. We had to dispose of garbage in natural gas incinerators. It took all the fun out of the job; no more aerosol spray can explosions. That ended my career as a garbage collector.

Over time, garbage collection systematically moved from the public to private sector. When cities and towns first began divorcing themselves from the garbage collection business, they contracted the job out to a private hauler, a practice you still see in Clarkdale today. Clarkdale has had a single-vendor contract for at least 25 years. The town negotiates a rate that is quite competitive, and includes extra services such as curbside brush pickup. Clarkdale also funds regional recycling bins in the parking lot next to the Clarkdale-Jerome School. The biggest advantage to single-vendor trash hauling for Clarkdale is less wear and tear on public and private streets. It is also less disruptive to neighborhoods to have one hauler instead of multiple haulers on multiple days.

Many other communities, such as Cottonwood and Camp Verde, have let garbage collection go the way of free enterprise. Today, residents in Cottonwood and Camp Verde have the choice of four commercial haulers with whom they can do business. The municipality is hands-off.

And there are still those holdouts who haul their trash to the landfill.

To each his own.

During the course of this transition from government service to competitive free enterprise, naysayers predicted we were going to end up with huge piles of garbage throughout the community and/or people were going to illegally dump their garbage in commercial dumpsters.

All these years later, we have about the same percentage of irresponsible people back then as we do today. But most of us have signed up with a commercial hauler, and some of those same haulers have now expanded their service to include the collection of recyclables.

Recycling, like trash collection, was first viewed as a service that could not survive without the government being involved. Cities and towns assumed some of the financial responsibility for recycling's success and survival.

The huge recycling bins were akin to trash collection's version of a landfill and government subsidies were essential to their success. In Cottonwood's case, through competitive bidding, the city first found it could provide the service cheaper than what it was paying Sedona Recycles. Even then with a new contracted provider, Sedona Recycles continued offering the service for free. Now, the city has completely cut its subsidy to the recycling industry, and why not as commercial haulers have figured out how to turn a dollar by collecting recyclables.

Camp Verde seems to be on the same course as the town is now paying only about 50-cents on the dollar to have recycling bins in its community. Being that Camp Verde has let garbage collection go the route of free enterprise, and those commercial haulers offer pick-up on recyclables, it's probably only a matter of time before the town decides to quit subsidizing the landfill concept of recycling.

In Cottonwood, the city has learned that residents prefer curb-side recycling through their private trash hauler.

Free enterprise prevails.

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