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Councilmember seeks to change 'unfair,' 'two-tiered' trash pickup system

A city of San Diego trash collection truck is pictured in this undated photo.
City of San Diego
A city of San Diego trash collection truck is pictured in this undated photo.

San Diego's policy of offering free trash pickup to single-family homes will cost taxpayers nearly $235 million over the next five years, according to a report due to be discussed by a City Council committee Thursday.

The report from the Independent Budget Analyst's Office was requested by Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera, who wants to ask voters to amend the policy.

The People's Ordinance, enacted by voters in 1919, requires the city to provide free trash pickup to nearly all single-family homes. Apartment buildings and businesses, meanwhile, must pay private companies for trash and recycling pickup.


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Despite the costs of the ordinance, few city leaders have dared to suggest changing the system, which many consider a third rail in local politics.

But Elo-Rivera, who chairs the council's Environment Committee, seems willing to try. He said offering a free service to only a subset of residents is regressive and unfair — especially considering households in single-family homes tend to earn higher incomes and have greater wealth than those in apartments.

"There's a two-tiered system, and that's unfair in and of itself," Elo-Rivera said. "And who it most impacts, which is those who are most likely to be of lower income, makes it especially unfair."

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The issue has taken on new urgency as San Diego faces rising costs associated with waste management. Revenue from recycling has plummeted since China stopped accepting most recyclable materials from the United States.

Furthermore, state law will require the city to start collecting compostable organic waste by 2023, according to the IBA report. San Diego plans to fund those new or expanded services with its general fund, which also pays for police, fire, tree trimming and other core city services.

Elo-Rivera said allowing the city to charge residents fees, with the revenue sequestered in a special fund that can only pay for waste management, would free up millions of dollars for other city priorities like infrastructure repairs, parks and libraries.

"This isn't going to fix all of our budget problems, but it's an important part of it," Elo-Rivera said.

Free Trash Pickup In San Diego To Be Discussed

The decision on whether to place a measure on the ballot to repeal or amend the People's Ordinance would require approval from the council's Rules Committee, then the full City Council. Actually changing the rule would require approval from a majority of city voters.