The D.C. Government's Bizarre Trash Can Saga
Americans count on government for far too many things these days. It handles pensions (Social Security) and health care (Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, Obamacare), and regulates everything from banking (Dodd-Frank) to breathing (EPA).
But if we're going to assume government is competent to handle such big things, it's worth looking at how it deals with more mundane tasks. Such as collecting the trash.
Earlier this year, District of Columbia residents were told that their trash cans and recycling bins would be replaced. And, indeed, new cans were delivered with impressive haste all across the District. Perhaps this odd outbreak of government efficiency was designed to convince residents that embattled Mayor Vincent Gray deserved to keep his job.
If that was the goal, mission unaccomplished. Gray lost the Democratic primary and, in the one-party District, will be on the streets after November's election. And for a time, it seemed he might find those streets impassable, since they were clogged with old garbage cans.
You see, when they dropped off new cans, the sanitation workers failed to remove thousands and thousands of the old ones. The cans just bumped around, unwanted by anyone. It could be part of a Seinfeld routine: "Have you ever noticed how hard it is to throw away a garbage can?" Plenty of cans with bright yellow stickers imploring trash men to "Take me!" were ignored.
Mina Karini, an artist living in the District, saw an opportunity, as all good artists do. She could improve the environment while also gathering raw material for one of her projects. So she and a friend set out one night to collect some of the waste waste bins.
She insists they collected only bins that had the yellow stickers on them. "The words 'Take me' mean people don't want them anymore," she told the Washington Post.
Oh, but somebody wanted them.
A Secret Service agent with a bit of time on his hands informed D.C. police that he'd seen a man "walk stealthily down the sidewalk with a hood over his head to conceal his face collecting DPW recycling bins." The jig was up. Karini and her friend Timothy Logan Melham were arrested and charged with second-degree theft. The cans were still D.C. property, apparently, even if residents didn't want them and the city wouldn't remove them.
The judge ordered the can hunters "to undergo drug testing and avoid any criminal offenses," and set an August trial date. Prosecutors let the pair sweat for a few weeks, then quietly dropped the charges.
In any event, the caper put the unwanted trash bins on the front page of Washington's establishment newspaper, so D.C.'s government swung into action. Starting in May, the question wasn't how to get rid of a trash can; it was how to hold on to one.
More than a dozen residents saw their new trash cans collected and hauled away by city workers. This included cans stored on private property. "The men seemed to deem any can outside the garages or gates as being on public property, when this is emphatically not true," one resident told the Washington Post. She chased the haulers down and forced them to give up her cans. Others weren't so active, and lost their cans entirely.
Now residents say their mantra will be "hide any cans you want to keep," although that advice isn't helpful for those who want to use the cans in the traditional way -- that is, place them along the curb with trash in them, expecting sanitation workers to leave them behind.
True, the cans are technically city property, and the District government claims the old bins are worth about $1.50 each. Yet it turns out these valuable resources weren't being recycled -- they were being treated like trash. "City officials admitted Tuesday that sanitation crews dumped at least 132 truckloads of plastic bins -- a third of the more than 16,000 old cans collected last week -- alongside city waste and hauled them all off to Virginia to be incinerated," the Post reports. Well, there's $8,000 up in smoke. Good thing we didn’t allow the cans to become part of an art exhibit.
Predictably, a spokesman explained that: "Under these circumstances, where safe movement was compromised, the benefit of improving safety exceeded the cost of not recycling." Of course. "Safety." The last refuge of governments everywhere. Whether it's strip searches at the airport or mandatory health insurance, rest assured the government knows what you need and is merely looking out for your "safety."
The question is why Americans trust government so completely. It cannot collect our trash efficiently, but we expect it to provide for our safety, our retirement, our health care, and many other important things. That's not likely to end well.
Rich Tucker is a writer living in Northern Virginia. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.