We need to boost recycling, but not at expense of trash pickup

The "daily miracle" is an old industry phrase describing the newspaper tossed on your driveway every morning.

It's a daily miracle because, despite daunting time constraints, despite all the moving parts that must fall into place, despite the pitfalls that frequently bedevil the process, the newspaper manages to get made and delivered every day.

And it gets printed and delivered seven days a week, 365 days per year, for years and years and years.

And on top of all that, most of the words are spelled right and most of the pictures are in focus.

Trust me, it's something very much like a miracle.

The daily newspaper is one of those things that most people take for granted.

There are other aspects of urban life that we take for granted, as well. For example, when we turn on the faucet, water comes out. Almost always, 99.99 percent of the time. And what's more, it may not taste very good in Las Vegas, but we're reasonably confident that we can drink it without falling ill.

Also, when we flush the toilet or drain the sink, 99.99 percent of the time whatever is supposed to go away -- to leave our homes forever -- actually goes away.

In my experience, this phenomenon is also true of trash pickup. I put the trash out on the sidewalk in the morning, and my garbage can is empty when I come home from work.

And it doesn't matter what kind of material I drag out to the curb. Short of nuclear waste, the garbage men will take it away.

We pay for all this, of course. Reasonable people can disagree on whether we are paying too little or too much for these services, but I would suggest that we are getting a pretty good deal on most of them.

Perhaps the best deal of the bunch is trash collection. Republic Services picks up our garbage twice a week -- something of a luxury compared with many other cities. And then the company comes around every other week to gather our recyclables. In my 20 years in Las Vegas, they've always come on the scheduled day, and they've always carted away my garbage.

Republic's bill for this service? About $12 per month.

Not exactly a fortune by anyone's measure.

But tinkerers lurk. Republic Services and the Clark County Commission recently agreed to experiment with this formula of twice-a-week garbage pickup and biweekly recycling collection. The goal of the pilot project is to figure out a method to encourage more people to recycle.

Las Vegans are dismal recyclers, among the nation's worst. A ridiculously low number of us -- somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent -- actually participates in the recycling program that we all pay for.

One of Republic's proposed alternatives to the current system is highly controversial: It would cut back garbage pickup to once a week while collecting recyclables on a weekly basis.

The first part of this plan has generated a firestorm of opposition. It's abundantly clear that Las Vegans really like twice-a-week garbage pickup.

We have good reasons for this. First and foremost, the six or seven months of very hot weather in Las Vegas create a big problem. Leave your garbage out in the garage for six days and it starts to smell.

This is not a small issue. Week-old trash left in the heat can be truly nauseating.

Republic seems to favor this idea in part because it would be cheaper for the company to pick up trash once a week instead of twice. Even if recycling pickup increased to weekly, the company would come out ahead.

Considering that homeowners pay a modest $12 per month for the current level of service, I'm not surprised that Republic is looking for ways to reduce its costs.

If Republic is genuinely having trouble making a reasonable profit under its current contracts -- it's no secret that the cost of doing business is rising -- let's audit the numbers and see if an unscheduled fee increase is justified. Republic has the trash collection franchise in the valley, which means it has long-term contracts with local governments under which rates, services, etc., are regulated. If Republic opens its books and can convince local officials that the rates are too low to cover legitimate costs, then contract revisions might be in order. Or not.

Bottom line: I'd rather pay a little more to maintain twice-a-week trash pickup than see my service reduced. Just as we won't stand for a degradation in our water service, sewer service or daily newspaper delivery, we can't see the logic in reducing trash-collection service.

At the same time, we must be prepared to pay a fair price for this excellent service.

Meanwhile, the jury is very much out on whether switching to weekly recycling pickup would result in higher participation. Cynicism about the local recycling program runs deep. If Republic Services and local governments want more residents to recycle, merely increasing the frequency of pickup isn't going to do the trick.

Education and confidence would seem to be far more important components of a successful recycling program.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.