The controversial trash collection system proposed by Mayor Marion Barry to help balance next year's city budget has been an overwhelming success in some areas of the country. But it has yet to face the test it would encounter in Washington, according to reports from four cities that use the system.
The use of jumbo roll-out containers and mechanized lifts was lauded by city officials and residents in Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., Hampton, Va. and Shorewood, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. City trash collection bills and workers' back injuries are down, rodent problems have been reduced, few children have been hurt -- despite predictions of disaster -- and most citizens are happy.
Those are primarily smaller, flatter, more suburban communities in warmer climates, where driveways are a way of life, bumper-to-bumper on-street parking is rare, and rats often are less of a problem than racoons. These also are areas with fewer poor children in search of new -- and deceptively dangerous -- things to play with, as some D.C. City Council members fear will be the case if the hugh, mobile containers are used in parts of Washington.
Moreover, labor unions in these areas generally have supported the plan, even though it resulted in fewer jobs. In Washington, the union representing the city's trash collectors oppose Barry's plan.
Thus, although officials at the D.C. Department of Environmental Services believe the system will work here," words of caution are mixed with the praise given by officials and citizens in other areas.
In Atlanta and Shorewood, rats -- a major problem in Anacostia -- have gnawed through the oversized cans to get at garbage. Children in St. Petersburg used some of the 90-gallon containers as boats during a recent flood. Flies and mosquitoes have been a nuisance wherever the larger cans are used, especially in hot weather.
"We've had more mosquitoes and flies than we've ever had," said Sally Dukes, who lives in St. Petersburg. "I'm not about to go out there and spray a can of Raid every time I have to empty my garbage. It's the worst darn things the city ever did."
Pat Willis, president of the City-Wide League of Neighborhoods in Atlanta, is pleased with the 80-gallon "Herbie Curbies" that have been in use there since 1974. "It has not damaged the appearance of neighborhoods," she said. "You're eighter going to have a Herbie or a garbage can tipped over. I'd rather have the Herbie."
Voters in Newport News, Va. rejected the system in a referendum last year, but in neighboring Hampton, where the system has been used four years, there is overwhelming acceptance. In St. Petersburg, a six-month test earlier this year produced a 90 percent approval rating. But Hazel Orr, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, still is skeptical about the savings to taxpayers.
"We are afraid that the figures will cost more than they showed," she said. "You know some of their figures have not worked out in the past."
Attilo Corbo, St. Peterburg's director of sanitation, conceded there would probably be only limited financial impact in that city, where residents have to pay a monthly garbage collection fee. "The system itself will not stop increases in rates," Corbo said. "But what it will do is hold the line on the size of future increases."
Barry proposed the plan as part of his 1.5 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning next Oct. 1. The mayor told the City Council it would reduce the city's budget by nearly $700,000 and eliminate 38 jobs.
As first proposed, the once-a-week collections using 82-gallon cans would have been made only in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River -- Wards 7, 8 and part of Ward 6. After strong criticism, Barry decided to try the system in all areas of the District of Columbia except the inner city (Wards 1 and 2), where the city collects the least amount of garbage.
Each household would be given one of the mobile containers -- which are about 2 1/2 to 3 times larger then the typical can in use today -- and occupants would roll their trash to the usual collection point. The system would not be used in areas where there are many rowhouses or where houses have several steps, D.C. officials have said. Only half of the residences where the city now collects trash would be suitable for the mobile cart program.
Trial tests of the system could start early next year, D.C. environmental officials said last week.
The new system is supposed to cut down the city's reportedly high trash collection costs and tailor trash collection needs to the characteristics of individual neighborhoods.
Barry also said that it would help reduce rodent problems in areas of Anacostia where trash often is not placed in cans and reduce trash collection crew size. In Wards 1 and 2, where this system would not be used, city trash collectors would be replaced by private firms. In all, 132 jobs would be eliminated in the city's trash collection bureau.
Municipal officials in the other cities surveyed reported definite savings through the use of mobile cart trash collection programs.
In Hampton, refuse collection costs have been cut by $350,000 a year since 1975, when the program went into effect. In 1974, Atlanta had a $6.7 million annual trash collection bill and 591 workers. Today the bill is $6.2 million, but there are only 355 workers. Shorewood has cut in half its fleet of trash collection vehicles.
Another clear savings has been a reduction in the number of back injuries. The large cans are lifted by mechanical hoists instead of by men. In three years, Hampton, for example, reduced the number of trash collection injuries from 94 to 34.
Despite the loss of jobs, union officials in some areas have supported the system, partially because it eliminated the need for trashmen to go into the backyards of homes to carry out the garbage.
"We consider it an improvement in working conditions," said Ray Abernathy, a spokesman for the Atlanta regional branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes. "It's helped us from the standpoint of morale and dignity."
Washington has a major problem with rats, and in parts of Anacostia, that problem is worse than in most other areas of the city. District of Columbia officials and most of those interviewed said the new containers are rat-proof because of the tight-fitting lids, some of which are hinged to the cans.
Devon Bogue, the Fulton County Director of Environmental Health Services, said, however, that there have been some instances of rats gnawing through cans in Atlanta. But he said he could not say how many times this had occurred and he did not consider the rat problem to be serious.
Flies and mosquitoes have been a problem. In Hampton, officials tried collecting trash once a week, but quickly abandoned the practice. They have been told by state officials that flies breed in four-day cycles. Picking up trash once in every seven days allows flies to multiply, state officials said.
In St. Petersburg, collecting trash less than twice a week is forbidden by state law. But there have been a few complaints of mosquitoes breeding in the cans because the can used in that city collects water at the bottom when it rains.
Edmund Pancryz, Hampton's director of public works, predicted that the District of Columbia "would have some problems trying to limit it to once a week collections."
Atlanta collects trash once a week, but Fulton County Health Director Bogue said pick-ups at least twice a week would be better in the summer. Bogue said he is not sure if the fly problem has become worse since the larger cans came into use five years ago. But, he said, "it's generally a truism that if you pick up garbage more frequently, you cut down on fly production."
In many areas where the cans have been used, early skeptics have been made into believers. "I had visions of Herbie Curbies rolling down those steep driveways and crushing children in their path," said Atlanta City Councilman Richard Guthman. Now he praises the cost-cutting benefits of the program.
Buddy Fowlkes, one of Guthman's colleagues who also opposed the system, is still not convinced it has totally worked. But he says, "The people have adjusted to it; they accept it as a way of life."
There are some hidden advantages and disadvantages to using the system. One is keeping a supply of cans. Life expectancy for them ranges from five to 10 years.
In Atlanta, the city already is spending $60,000 to $70,000 to replace about 2,000 cans a year. In Hampton, the city used $1 million in federal revenue sharing funds to purchase the first set of mobile carts. When those wear out, citizens will have to purchase their own replacements at a cost of more than $30 a can.
Shirl Abbey, village manager in Shorewood, said none of the cans used in his city cracked in the cold Wisconsin winter winds and they were less likely to be buried in snow banks. "That's when it has really shown its stuff," Abbey said.