‘Trash Talk’: Is Garbage Collection Privatization Better?

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Is privatization a good idea when it comes to Baguio City’s garbage collection?

A plan by the Baguio City Council is afoot requesting the City Mayor’s office to look into the probability of conducting proof of concept or feasibility study on a lingering suggestion of privatizing garbage collection in the city.

Such clamor has been spurred by the current health situation which has caused serious impact and pressure on all parts of Baguio’s wholeness, solid waste management being no exception.

Proper garbage collection is a very necessary part of a whole integrated system for solid waste management. It’s the end of a cycle in proper garbage management in a practical and achievable waste disposal improvements required to reduce acute public health, environmental and social impacts caused by existing garbage dumps.

For a backgrounder nutshell, it’s the city government that manages, spends and disposes the city’s garbage, spending an average of Ph240 million plus another Ph150 million for other operational costs.

Annually, the city government shells out Php90 million for hauling and tipping fees alone.

Given the large expense, exacerbated by the pandemic pressure has given the shot in the arm for some city policymakers to entertain the idea of relinquishing the job of garbage collection and in the process, transfer it to the private sector.

Which brings all concerned back to the question, “Is privatization good for Baguio’s garbage collection?”

Said differently, the idea, in theory, of contracting public services to private companies to cut costs makes sense. An example to such are road systems which are constructed, maintained but contracted out by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to private contractors.

But privatization also carries risks.

Thus, it’s essential that Baguio citizens, directly affected by such suggestion, must do their homework and help – by offering ideas rather than criticism – policymakers when it comes to the thought of privatization of garbage collection.

It must be the case since “talking garbage” sensibly affects all of us.

In simpler terms, Baguio City officials are mulling the thought of contracting an outsider to provide a good or service. In the context of public administration, this is when the Baguio City General Services (GSO) contracts a person or company from the private sector to provide a service instead of conducting the service itself with its own staff.

Mind, that in the understanding of this column, a proof of concept is supposed to be a neutral probe on a subject which can be used by policymakers as a tool to shape or predict a probable outcome of a proposed solution to a problem at hand, by examining the actors, events and environment involved.

It’s a measure of how well a solution to a policy problem will be accepted by a set of decision makers and the general public.

Herald Express reached   out last week to residents on garbage collection outsourcing and received views that policymakers may want, or may not want added on, into the proposed feasibility study that might be kicked into motion regarding the garbage collection privatization aim.

– Pros: The Baguio City government may achieve cost saving;

– Cons: Does the city government have the metrics in place to prove in advance that outsourcing garbage disposal and collection will save money for the city?

– Pros: Efficient outsourcing. Sterile philosophical debates about “public vs private” can be detached from day-day reality in the sphere of public management. Thus said, the city government may rely on networks of private, non-government organizations to help deliver services. And why not? That’s efficient management.

– Cons: Inefficient outsourcing. Failure of any government entity to ensure due diligence on the part of a private contractor, NGO, choosing ill-equipped contractors and failing to monitor progress can turn into costly problem for garbage collection and disposal;

– Pros: Although limited in manpower and resources, the GSO’s system of garbage collection is still working well, given its funding;

– Cons: A contractor accepted by the city government, will, in its first operation agree to stipulated funds proposal. But the next time a contractor contracts to negotiate, the price of garbage collection may go up significantly;

– Pros:  Any private partner, in a government contract, shall assume primary responsibility for general liability and environmental compliance;

Cons: Solid waste is still a public health issue and therefore, government shall still maintain oversight control in proper garbage collection which shall be environmentally compliant;

– Pros: A good outsourcing contract can deliver efficient garbage collection and disposal, like what the city government is doing;

– Cons:  Still, city government shall “ride herd” on implementation of the contract since experience have shown (as in the cases of roads being built commonly known as slippage) that contractors, more often than not, are motivated first, by profit, that can result to affecting work quality, slide or slip;

(The resident who saw this weakness in privatization of garbage collection may happen as he cited gave examples of such incidents of what he says happened when officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) required contractors to redo their jobs as required by specifications.)

– Pros: City residents are still satisfied with the garbage fee they pay to the city through their barangays;

– Cons:  If a contractor will get into the picture, garbage fee might increase;

– Pros: Community pride and public perception. When trash collection internal (done by government), the powers that be are able to take up any citizen issue;

– Cons: When a private company handles the service, the government does not have as much control when an issue arises.

– Pros: There are residents keen to have the government save money by contracting garbage collection to private entities;

– Cons: There are residents opposed to such move; they say they love the service provided by the city workers;

– Pros: A contractor chosen by the city government will ensure steady work and income for its workers;

-Cons: There’s no guarantee a contractor will continue the practice of the GSO of allowing volunteer garbage collectors to help regular and city-paid garbage collectors in waste collection. Volunteers accompany GSO garbage trucks or “ride shotgun” during collection hours and the recyclables they gather are sources of their income.

– Pros: There are residents proposing a study on “public-private mix” and not solely privately contracted;

– Cons:  No suggestion yet has been floated on such kind of venture;

The pandemic has altered waste generation dynamics that has necessitated attention by the city council that requires a dynamic response from policymakers. The feasibility study need highlights challenges faced by the GSO in solid waste management and the underlying opportunities to fill existing loopholes in the system.

There’s this growing consensus among health experts that failure to properly manage waste generated from health facilities as well as those from households may escalate spread of covid through secondary transmission.

And the pandemic has affected the garbage recycling market primarily because of the measures imposed to deter infection like social distancing or lockdown.  The usual “mambobote” or mangangalakal that roams barangays shouting to buy recycled materials often finds to his woe he could hardly induce household owners to come out from their abodes and bring out sellable trash.

Waste management being an essential public service in the fight to beat covid, the policymakers call to look for more effective ways in disposing of the city’s garbage is not only critical; it’s laudable.

Public participation and citizen action like requesting public hearing on such suggestion of privatization be done, to bring all branches of society coming together collectively to resolve this issue that affects all, daily.

Lastly, this column also offers its one centavo idea to the topic, to add to the other ideas of residents: For the city council to entertain the concept of doing garbage collection through a cooperative system – just like the Benguet Electric Cooperative (BENECO).

Since most residents take pride in the city government taking care of their garbage, then let residents take ownership in garbage collection in the cooperative way – which is a people-centered enterprise, owned, controlled and run by their members to realize a common objective.

For sure, BENECO members, in the likes of Atty. Delmar Carino, and others, would only be too willing to share their knowledge on how to set up a cooperative that will address a commonly-driven objective – of making Baguio City a better place to live.

The service offered may be different – like BENECO catering to power service, and this new cooperative about garbage, catering to proper waste management – but the coop system of doing is comparatively, the same.

Such coop set-up on waste management in the city might even open new job opportunities for the unemployed.