Trash 'plan' still a costly free-for-all

There was some good news in the solid-waste management plan update that Sedgwick County commissioners heard and approved Wednesday:

Continuing a downward trend starting in 2007, the county generated 8.1 percent less trash in 2009 than in 2008. Recycling rose 1.6 percent, as the use of the county's household hazardous waste center rose 8.8 percent.

Yet it seems likely that, environmental resources director Susan Erlenwein told county commissioners, the decline in volume is a reflection of the economic downturn, as people spend less and throw away less.

And for too many county residents, including many in Wichita, the county's trash-disposal system remains notable only for its high bills and low recycling rates.

True, the city of Wichita continues to investigate how it might franchise trash, with an eye toward safeguarding current haulers. Some private homeowners associations long have had their own deals for their residents. And Waste Connections' Recycle Bank program has boosted recycling among its customers over the past year.

But the real public leadership on solid waste is coming from the smaller towns that have opted to franchise their trash service for the benefit of all residents. Derby's recent move to franchising cut bills in half, while adding services. Twelve cities have some kind of contract; Valley Center also is pursuing franchising.

The county adopted language a few years ago saying it "expects" cities to have a contract or franchising in place by Jan. 1, 2011. But there is no threat of consequences for those that don't. Long-heard talk of countywide volume-based rates, curbside recycling and a grass-clippings ban has not materialized into policy.

And though it was good to see commissioners urge action Wednesday on yard waste and corrugated cardboard — which make up 17.1 percent of the county waste stream and 19.6 percent of the commercial trash stream, respectively — it's hard to imagine the current commission doing much to counter those numbers.

Commission Chairman Karl Peterjohn voted against the adoption of the solid-waste plan update, after fretting that even the county's weak endorsement of franchising is "going to make our less-than-perfect situation worse."

Could it be worse, with some county residents still paying two or three times more than others? And with two or three different trash trucks rumbling down the same blocks every week, needlessly wearing out streets and fouling the air?

Thirteen years after the county made the unfortunate decision to rely on private transfer stations and out-of-county landfills, solid-waste management in Sedgwick County still looks less like a plan with a free-market focus than it does a costly free-for-all.