Hillsborough County has an opportunity this week to make garbage collection cheaper, cleaner and more convenient for its quarter-million households. The county has put its garbage collection contracts out to bid for the first time in 17 years, and the result should mean cheaper rates regardless of the service options that county commissioners choose on Thursday. But the best decision would be to move to automated trucks.
Hillsborough residents now receive curbside pickup two days a week, plus one collection each for recyclables and yard waste. The decision is whether to reduce that service to once a week, and whether to continue picking up trash cans manually or opting for new, automated trucks.
Whatever commissioners decide, the rates for the new, seven-year contract term will be lower than they are now, thanks to competitive bidding that will cut the $12 monthly collection portion of the garbage bill by at least one-fourth. But the option with the most value is automating the current twice-weekly service. Under this plan, haulers provide large, wheeled carts for garbage and recycled materials. Homeowners would no longer have to buy their own garbage cans or carry them to the street. These carts have built-in lids that prevent animals and Florida's stormy weather from strewing trash throughout the neighborhoods. Residential areas would be cleaner and more attractive. Automated trucks reduce the danger of garbage handlers darting into the streets. And the cost savings are greater with automated service.
A small percentage of county customers who responded to a survey said they were generally pleased with the existing service. This is more a measure of public wariness with changing routines than anything else. Switching to automated trucks won't change anything for customers beyond adding to the convenience. All the vendors bidding on the work are capable of putting automated trucks in service. The contracts also include service standards that any contractor would have to meet.
Commissioners should take advantage of new technology to make garbage collection a much more efficient operation. And they should not pass up the cost savings and other benefits of automation out of fears of the unknown. The only real debate should be over whether residents can get by with once-weekly collection — an issue that has not had the public airing it deserves. But there should be no doubt that whatever the service frequency, automation is a better way going forward, especially as these contracts could easily be in place for another decade.