Even the best ideas can have unintended consequences


I’ve written before about the law of unintended consequences, that whole thing where a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, and that minor disturbance sets off a chain reaction that ultimately results in a tsunami in Borneo.

I saw a particularly interesting chain of unintended consequences during the last big recession, when the Wyoming town we were living in decided to go from twice-weekly garbage pickup to once a week in an effort to save money.

A number of New Jersey communities, including East Brunswick, are currently considering reducing the number of pickups per week, so an account of that experiment in fiscal frugality might provide some food for thought.

Here’s what happened:

Our town was very windy, so instead of plastic garbage cans that can blow around, most folks used 55-gallon drums with the lids cut off. And for lids, they used old tires with quarterinch steel in the middle. The cans were big and heavy, but they wouldn’t blow around. Most families had two of them.

But when the town went to once-weekly pickups, people realized that two garbage cans weren’t enough, so they went out and bought hundreds of plastic cans at the local hardware stores.

Which immediately started blowing down the streets, turning the thoroughfares into dangerous games of dodge ’em. They even mowed down a few pedestrians before people, and the police, started demanding a solution.

The solution? The town forked out to buy great big, heavy garbage containers for every family in town. You couldn’t wheel the things around, so they parked them in people’s front yards (very attractive). They were also too heavy for the sanitation guys to lift.

The solution for that problem?

The city had to buy a whole new fleet of garbage trucks, the kind with a winch on them strong enough to lift the new garbage cans.

That seemed to work well enough, but instead of saving money, the city discovered it was losing even more money. Big fancy garbage trucks and big heavy trash receptacles don’t come cheap.

And there was an even more disturbing problem. The new, expensive trash receptacles were over 5 feet tall, so little kids taking out the trash had to stand on something to lob a bag of trash into the bin. And kids being kids, they sometimes fell in.

Our oldest son was one of the early victims and he fell in as he was emptying the trash one afternoon after school. He couldn’t get back out, and it was nearly two hours later when one of us parents came home from work and heard him caterwauling in the trash can.

And he wasn’t the only one. Kids were falling into the things all over town, and it didn’t take long for people to start worrying what would happen if they came to empty the container with one of the kids trapped inside.

So the town had to buy a whole new batch of humongous trash cans with little ladders inside so kids could get out if they fell in.

They also had to make some other concessions to the angry townspeople. One, they had to open the town dump so people with too much trash to have lying around until pickup day could load their junk in the bed of a pickup and take it to the landfill themselves. That had the effect of actually increasing the amount of solid waste, since people figured that since they were going to the dump anyway, they might as well fill the truck with old washers and dryers and televisions.

They also had to allow people to burn garbage and leaves if they couldn’t make it to the dump, and the smoke from that decision choked whole neighborhoods. Oh, and did I mention that there was an increase in the number of raccoons, and skunks and possums and coyotes and bears around town, drawn by the large volume of fragrant garbage? Even a monster-sized trash container won’t keep out a determined

bear, although that might not be an issue here in central New Jersey. The most recent bear sighting in these parts was … last year.

As I said, unintended consequences. So it’s probably a good thing that the East Brunswick pols decided to explore this idea a little more before making a decision. You can’t blame them for wanting to save some money, and if once-weekly pickup would save $1.9 million over five years as Mayor David Stahl believes, that economy would certainly be applauded by the community’s overburdened taxpayers.

But it’s probably a good idea to study the possible consequences and options more fully before making a decision. Especially one as unpopular as this one appears to be.

• • • You can’t blame communities like West Long Branch for getting their hopes up about pocketing some money from the new administration’s Economic Stimulus Package. West Long Branch hopes to get about $3.9 million for upgrades to roads and public buildings.

They’re right when they say that if there’s so much money out there up for grabs, cashstrapped communities are crazy if they don’t ask for their piece of the pie. Getting that hunk of pie is not a sure thing, but you can’t blame them for asking. West Long Branch is certainly as deserving as New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg wants so much of the pie he’d need a new fleet of garbage trucks to haul it all away.

But you also have to applaud towns that are exploring proactive and common-sense options for saving money — communities like Oceanport, which figures it might save a bundle by sharing some services with West Long Branch. They’ve applied for a grant to pay for a study to find out just how much could be saved, but I predict the savings will be substantial.

There’s been a lot of reluctance in New Jersey to these shared-services proposals, because every community wants to maintain its integrity and home rule. But that independence has also led to the huge waste of taxpayer dollars.

Necessity may finally overcome that reluctance, and we’re hearing more and more about shared services and the economies that might be gained.

Any proposal that has the potential to save taxpayers some money is certainly worth looking at. Just watch out for those unintended consequences.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.