Dallas plans once-a-week garbage pickup citywide


by By RUDOLPH BUSH / The Dallas Morning News rbush@dallasnews.com


Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:47 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 2:55 PM

For some Dallas residents, twice-a-week garbage pickup is as sacred a government service as daily mail delivery.

But it could soon be a thing of the past: City officials plan to move all of Dallas to once-a-week garbage and recycling pickup on March 1.

The plan, which requires approval of the City Council, stands to save the city millions of dollars a year that will be passed along to homeowners with a 64-cent reduction in their monthly sanitation fee.

The shift will also reduce by 25 the number of high-polluting garbage trucks that rumble over city streets every workday.

"It saves our air, it saves our roads, it saves our landfill and it saves our citizens money," said City Manager Mary Suhm.

Since 2004, City Hall has been inching toward elimination of twice-weekly garbage pickup, a change every other large Texas city has already made.

But in the past, howls of protests from Dallas residents and a reluctant City Council have kept it from happening.

Times have changed, Suhm said.

"Everywhere we went in the community, the citizens have said they are ready to do it," she said.

The timing of the change coincides with deep cuts to the city budget, but it's not a cost-cutting move.

Sanitation services are entirely paid for with monthly fees charged to residents. By city practice, cost reductions are passed along to residents and can't be used to pad other parts of the budget.

No city employees will be laid off as a result of the change, though eventually, fewer driver positions will be necessary.

Already, about a quarter of the city - mainly in North and northwest Dallas - is on a once-a-week pickup cycle thanks to a pilot program that began in early 2008 and was expanded at the beginning of this year.

Complaints have been light, and the city considers the pilot effort a major success. It not only has decreased the cost of garbage pickup but also has more than doubled the recycling rate.

"It's really a lot simpler than the old [twice-a-week] system," said council member Ron Natinsky, whose Far North Dallas district has been on once-a-week pickup since February 2008.

"Under the old one, your garbage was picked up twice a week, and your recycling was picked up twice a month, but not on the same day your garbage was," he said.

It was confusing to some residents, and recycling rates suffered as a result.

Since once-a-week pickup was introduced in the pilot areas, recycling rates have jumped from a weekly average of 22 pounds per household to 46 pounds.

The more garbage that is recycled, the less that goes into the McCommas Bluff landfill.

City officials estimate that the once-a-week program will decrease the amount of recyclable trash in the landfill by about 20,000 tons. Currently, recycling diverts about 35,000 tons a year, a number that is expected to increase to 55,000 tons.

Despite the benefits, city officials still expect some complaints.

In the past, concerns have come from the city's poorer neighborhoods, particularly in southern Dallas, where some residents feel underserved by the city and are alarmed by changes to core services.

Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway acknowledges that some of his southern Dallas constituents will balk at the prospect of changing the way their garbage is collected.

"It's going to take an educational process. We are going to have to convince people," he said.

Caraway plans to sell it to residents by telling them that if it doesn't work, the city can always go back to twice-a-week, he said.

"Now is the best time to try to test it to see. If it works, we'll continue it," he said.

If the council does approve once-a-week pickup - and for now it appears certain there will be enough votes to make that happen - it is unlikely it would revert back.

City managers have been eager to make the switch for years, but only recently did the political will catch up with them.

A turning point appeared to come during a series of town hall meetings on the city's budget earlier this summer.

When city officials asked about ways to save money, many residents responded that moving to a once-a-week system would be fine by them.

During one meeting at Cedar Crest Golf Course in southern Dallas, the response was overwhelmingly in favor of once-a-week pickup, something that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Part of the reason is changing attitudes about taking care of the environment, city officials say.

But another major cause is the relative ease of recycling.

Where once residents had to separate the paper from the plastic from the cans, they now can put it all into one big blue 90-gallon bin that is collected on the same day as the garbage and sorted at the city's recycling center.

"When people find out it's an easy process that works for them in their daily lives, they're certainly willing to do it," Suhm said.