Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's garbage collection should be decided by numbers, not blind faith

Green For Life has been contracted to collect trash from city blocks west of Yonge St.
Green For Life has been contracted to collect trash from city blocks west of Yonge St.

For some members of Toronto City Council, there are political beliefs so strongly held that they practically become religion.

Take, for example, the notion of contracting out city services to the private sector. For those who worship at the Blessed Church of Privatization, there’s no doubt that contracting will always save taxpayer money.

But sometimes this kind of religion bumps up against reality, and things get silly.
We saw as much last week, with the release of a report put together by Toronto’s solid waste management department.

The report includes a detailed analysis of current operations, where two of the city’s four districts get their garbage, recycling and organics collected by private companies, while the other two get service from City of Toronto workers. After looking at current costs, long-term costs and the costs of redeploying city workers, the report recommends against further contracting out, because there are no projected cost savings. Some people didn’t like that.

Mayor John Tory, who pledged to contract out all of the city’s garbage collection during last year’s mayoral election, quickly released a statement saying the report left “a number of unanswered questions.”

Coun. Jaye Robinson, chair of the city’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, followed that up with an op-ed in the Toronto Sun declaring the report “a real head-scratcher.”

But I don’t get what’s so head-scratchy about any of this.

To get estimates on the potential costs of contracting out the remainder of the city’s garbage collection, the report uses figures projected from actual bids received in 2011 and 2014. Short of going through a real bid process, it’s hard to imagine how they’d get better estimates.

And to combat concerns that the city staff who wrote the report are somehow biased in favour of keeping collection in-house, the whole thing was reviewed by accountants at Ernst & Young, who agreed with the conclusion.

Then there are the cold, hard numbers. In 2014, the per-stop cost of collecting waste in Etobicoke’s District 1, which is contracted out, was $142.86. In Scarborough’s District 4, which has a similar urban environment and gets in-house collection, the cost was $126.90.

It’s hard to spin that.

None of this means that further contracting out should be taken off the table forever. That’s not what the report recommends. Instead, it suggests the city revisit these numbers every couple of years.

That’s sensible, even if it does run contrary to Tory’s campaign pledge. Following through on campaign promises that aren’t supported by evidence is a bad idea, anyway.

More to the point, when decisions come down to political religion versus hard numbers, the smart move is to go with the numbers — always.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-09-21T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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