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Ventura County Perspective

Talking Trash in the Civic-Minded Pursuit of Perfect Rubbish

Courtesy of Thousand Oaks, automatic trash collection arrives in Newbury Park. Can consultants be far behind?

December 13, 1998|AL GRESSLER

Well, there hasn't been this much excitement on our street in Newbury Park since neighbor Tony's gardener lost the brakes on his truck and ran through our wall. I speak, of course, of our automated trash pickup initiated this week, courtesy of the city of Thousand Oaks.

This morning was our first scheduled pickup using the new system, and my wife Ginny and I were up bright and early in our bathrobes to witness the big event.

As I understand it, the basic idea behind automatic trash collection (or semiautomatic, as it turns out in our case) is to speed up the whole operation, refine the sorting-out process and, apparently, restrict the amount of trash a family can put out at one time. (This last concept is a bit subtle: They'll give you more cans--they just charge you $5 apiece for them.) OK, so that's three ideas; bear with me.

The procedure is simplicity itself. A trash truck with a little hydraulic-arm thingy reminiscent of a machine in a Dr. Seuss book pulls up alongside the targeted trash bin, now standardized and color-coded by contents. It reaches out, grabs the bin and, like a movie cowboy tossing off a shot of whiskey, flips it over its shoulder and into a maw on the roof of the truck. From there it's off to the landfill or recycling center.

All of us had been told the new procedure was coming. Not since Allied planes dropped leaflets over enemy territory has a local citizenry been so forewarned. Letters in our mailboxes gave a rough timetable just so we'd be ready.

Then last week the trash bins arrived. I snapped to full alert at the sound of a low rumbling and, thinking the hot water heater was about to blow, dashed outside just in time to see four men wheeling them up the street and into our driveways.

With the bins came detailed instructions: The green bin was for our regular stuff; the brown, for yard clippings; the blue, for recyclables. Each week the green would be picked up together with either the brown or blue--all this according to a color-coded calendar supplied with a diagram of which way the wheels should be oriented, how far apart the bins should be placed, even the sequence of colors.

Along with the instructions came a four-color brochure explaining what could and could not be placed inside each bin. Nothing could have been more complete.

Now, people in Newbury Park could never be thought of as "slow." I'd guess at least half of us are college educated. And those of us who are not retired have very responsible jobs. And we're all above average intelligence. Ask anyone. But sometimes reading a bunch of stuff can be too much trouble. And sometimes, we just don't like people telling us how to do things . . . . Call it a streak of sheer cussedness, if you will.

For whatever reason, after the first trash day a quick, unscientific survey showed that about 70% of the trash was put out wrong. The driver had to get out, pick up the container, manually hook it up, etc. etc.--took him at least twice as long to do it "automatically."

Reflecting the new spirit of cooperation running rampant through the Thousand Oaks City Council, I'm sure all of us in Newbury Park want to do the right thing. We're not doing too well with our trash, but perhaps it's just a learning curve. It might be helpful to develop some sort of grading system to evaluate our trash presentation, like Olympic diving. Let me suggest a four-point grading system where a demerit would be awarded for each category, each representing a way a person could screw up his or her trash:

* Wrong trash bins for that particular week.

* Wrong trash bin orientation (wheels not toward curb).

* Insufficient space between bins.

* Unauthorized materials in bin.

Every week the driver would assign points to each residence and after, say, 25 points the occupants would have to go to a trash preparation class. With such an incentive, I'm sure in no time our trash would be the envy of cities everywhere. National awards would be presented: Neatest Trash for a City Under 120,000 Population.

Another alternative--and this has got to be how complicated tax laws spawned a whole generation of CPAs--would be to hire a Certified Trash Consultant (CTC) to come by each week and prepare our trash for us.

It might be the only way we'll ever get it right.

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