What Bethlehem Can Learn From Palmer Township About Garbage

I’m late to this article, but there are a few lessons Bethlehem politicians should learn from both the process and the substance of what Palmer’s politicians are doing on trash collection.

The backstory is that Bethlehem’s garbage collection market is a failed market. Instead of everyone’s trash getting picked up by a single hauler, there are a bunch of different trash haulers who contract directly with residents. For some kinds of goods and services, competitive markets are good at bringing down costs and improving services, but in this case the opposite is true. The proof is in the pudding: Bethlehem residents pay significantly more money for lower levels of service, and trash is out on the street all the time for pick-up, making the city dirtier than it has to be. J.P. Mascaro and Sons have said they’d have to charge Bethlehem residents $60-100 more per year for the same level of service they provide other municipalities. In this column at Patch I showed how a Bethlehem household could easily end up paying double the sticker price with not that much extra trash.

People have talked about reforming this system for a long time, but the two political economy problems that keep cropping up are that 1) some of the trash hauling companies wouldn’t be able to do business in Bethlehem if the city chose a single hauler, so they fight like dogs to maintain the broken market, and 2) a small number of residents favor the direct-contract system very strongly, believing incorrectly that the ability to choose a different hauler leads to better service and more accountability. Bethlehem politicians keep giving in to the demands of the small vocal groups, when it would clearly be better to do what’s best for the majority of residents.

The debate in Palmer is not like this at all.

First of all, Palmer’s focused on how to do this the best way. They did a national study of the best trash collection methods, and they’re trying to choose the best one on the merits:

Palmer Township is moving closer to a final vote on what will likely become a fully automated trash and recycling system that will run more efficiently and be safer than the long-standing three-people-on-a-truck pickup method.

It would also put two out of the three crewmen out of work.

After extensive research that included a study of collection programs across the country, Palmer Recycling Coordinator Cindy Oatis and the Palmer Township Environmental Steering Committee on Tuesday recommended that township supervisors approve the automated system.

Waste and recycling companies had bid on a five-year contract with additional three one-year options.

They’re also focused on picking the plan that the data says will save residents the most money:

Supervisors Chairman Dave Colver said, “No matter what choice we make, the rates are going down. We don’t know what that number is yet, but [the current $309 per year fee] will go south, not north … . This is a big deal; a multimillion-dollar contract.”

This is important. Cities can’t do fiscal stimulus. They can’t run a big deficit and fund a bunch of direct job creation. They have to balance their budgets every year. So the only option available to them for increasing people’s spending power in a recession is lowering the cost of living for their residents. Reducing the prices of the stuff people have to pay for, especially the big stuff like housing, transportation and various services. Palmer is focused on trying to put more money in the hands of their residents. Bethlehem could very easily do this too. If people in Bethlehem could save a couple hundred dollars a year on garbage, that’s money that they could be spending at local businesses.

Also, Palmer’s not worrying about people complaining for a while. They know some people will flip out at the changes, and they’re fine with that. They did the research, and they really do know better than the man in the street what’s the best way to design the garbage market. They’re willing to take some flack to get a better system in place:

Officials say the system would come with growing pains.

“We can expect a fair amount of upset residents,” Oatis said, “but by the time you get to the 90-day mark, everyone loves it. Other townships say let your residents live with it for a while.”

Too many Bethlehem politicians think their job is pleasing the loudest people, and pacifying whoever’s complaining. It’s a really backward and reactive way to make public policy.


  1. Interesting points, but that may be the most dire headline you’ve ever written.

  2. Almost went with The Market for Garbage or Bethlehem’s Garbage Political Economy. I dunno, they’re all bad.

  3. “Garbage In, Garbage Out: Bethlehem’s Wasteful Trash Policy Throws Good Money After Bad”

  4. Your argument that opposition is built on a small number of residents – what evidence do you have to support this?

  5. That it’s a small number I mean.

  6. The number of people who show up to any given public meeting or call their reps to support/oppose something is in the hundreds at most. There are 76K people in Bethlehem. Suppose city council has heard from 500 people about this. There’s no reason for city council to infer that this means most people care as strongly as the people who lobby them. It just means that a few hundred people care so much about it that they call their reps. That’s all we can draw from that, and there’s no reason at all to let that sway the vote. City council should be thinking of everybody else as basically indifferent to the “how” question. They probably like the idea of choice and haven’t given much thought to the economics, but what’s most important to them is getting trash service at a reasonable price, and having a clean city. They don’t have strong opinions about *how* to achieve that.

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