Monday, February 26, 2007

Column 94 - Let's Talk Trash

Let’s Talk Trash

Overall, “trash” is a profit center for IVGID; if you include the franchise fee paid by Waste Management to IVGID. Within that profit center; recycling loses money, more than one half of which is offset by the recycling fee paid by each property of $1.25 a month. That’s right, each homeowner and homeowners association pays a whopping $15 a year for this service. Seems like a bargain to me.

No one I’ve talked to or heard from is against the recycling program, but according to figures given to IVGID by Waste Management, only about 40% of the properties that put out garbage also put out recycling – not a great showing, but better than nothing. Waste Management recycling has been called limited when compared, say to California, where state law requires a much broader scope of recyclables be picked up and processed. WM takes all kinds of glass (except blue – sorry Skyy drinkers), most metal containers, and plastic bottles with a number 1 or 2 recycling classification. They also take newspaper and other kinds of paper. You can recycle corrugated cardboard, but only if you bring it to the WM facility on Sweetwater, which is open normal business hours during the week and until noon on weekends.

Recycling is one of the few things around that has almost no downside. The more products we recycle and reuse, the less energy is needed to manufacture new products, the fewer trees are cut down to make new paper, the more money the recycling companies make and the more money comes back to IVGID under the contract with WM. The 40% rate of recycling participation here may be due to lots of part-time residents or to a need for education. Making recycling easier and recycling more materials may also help increase participation.

The argument has been advanced that expanding the recycling program might increase the cost to homeowners. Okay, but even if it were to increase by a factor of 5, that means we’d go to $6.25 a month or $75 a year, a figure that’s not going to break or even be noticed by anyone. I spend more than $6.25 a month at Starbuck’s. Right now we recover about 3.25% recyclables from the total volume of trash collected. Estimates are that expanding to other plastics, picking up cardboard at curbside, etc. could increase that recovery rate into the teens.

The one troubling thing in all this is a question that no one I’ve asked has answered to any degree of satisfaction, namely why the contract for trash/recycling pickup is not put out for competitive bid. I’ve heard explanations ranging from “all the potential bidders subcontract to WM (true) and won’t bid against them (maybe)” to “WM is mob-connected and bad things would happen (patently ridiculous). But we won’t know if competitive bidding will make a difference if IVGID doesn’t put out a request for bids and see if they get any.

While I know that there is such a thing as no-bid (also known as sole source) contracts, these are generally used only in unusual situations. Such as when only one firm has a product that will meet the government's needs or only one firm can do the work, or when national security is involved. I see no compelling reason for IVGID to sole source contract for trash and recycling.

There is still time to make your thoughts known to the Board. I for one would like to see (a) recycling expanded to include a wider range of plastics and curbside pickup for corrugated cardboard, and (b) Requests for bids to go out to other providers in the area – if no one bids, fine, but let’s give the little guys a chance against WM, the thousand pound gorilla of the industry. What do you think?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Column 93 - Responsibility

Well, last week the wider world intruded on us in an unpleasant way. Four Incline High Juniors are accused of sabotaging the school buses in a way that could have resulted in damage and even potentially loss of life. As usual, school officials and people who know the accused say they are nice kids, never would have expected it, etc., and I have no doubt that is true.

Now this is no Columbine, but it still is cause for concern. I’m sure the four of them never thought far enough ahead to realize the potentially disastrous results of their actions, but while that might mitigate their guilt, it does not remove it. These are eleventh graders – if they don’t already drive, they will be eligible to drive soon, and they are a scant 18 months from leaving home, high school graduates, ready to go out on their own into the world – I don’t think it’s too much to expect that they should have given the implications of their actions more thought.

No one knows for sure why many young people today seem to be so prone to irresponsibility. I don’t think it’s all young people or even a majority, but it’s a large enough number for the problem to keep showing up – in school shootings, vandalism, graffiti, and now in cutting brake lines on school buses. As a psychologist who used to work with children, adolescents, and their families, I feel like I should understand, but have no confidence that I do. One possibility is that the consequences are just too remote for people of that age to think about.

Here’s an example: When I was about 10 or 11 years old, Nancy Brown and her brother Bruce offended me in some way that I can no longer remember, so some of my friends and I got a bright idea – we took some excelsior (shredded paper that bananas came in) and a .22 caliber bullet that we got God knows where, embedded the bullet in the paper, put it under Nancy’s window, lit the paper and ran away. Within minutes two things happened: a neighbor put out the fire and a police car, called by another neighbor, pulled up in front of my friends and me and took us into custody. Not more than 15 minutes after setting our primitive IED, I was in front of my parents with a policeman behind me, confessing what I had done and on the receiving end of some serious consequences.

It seems to me that this would be unlikely to happen nowadays. More likely the neighbors, if they were looking at all, would have felt it best to mind their own business, the police, if they were called, would have been careful not to violate any rights I might be thought to have, and my parents would have tried to understand or defended me against the police rather than punishing me. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but it seems to me that we have lost sight of the facts that (a) children are essentially amoral beings who have to be taught right from wrong and (b) the systems – police, teachers, parents – that are there to teach them and to make sure that bad choices have undesirable consequences have had their hands tied by fear of seeming abusive, violating “rights” that may or may not be useful and a culture of psychologism that makes responsibility a bad word.

I feel for the parents of these four children, but I hope that, if they are guilty, their punishment is significant enough to have them learn something useful. The worst thing they could learn would be that they can do something wrong and then they or their parents or a lawyer can game the system so that they escape the consequences of their choices and their actions.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Column 91 - Recycling

Most of you will be relieved to hear that I won’t be writing another column about John Bohn, but I will take one last word. If last week’s letters in which Bohn and his cronies trotted out the “sore loser” chestnut is the best he’s got, then I think that it’s likely that the complaints filed with the state and any recall effort anyone decides to undertake will likely be successful. The State Board of Ethics has let me know they have decided to look into the matter, so I’ll leave the rest up to you, the residents to say what kind of person you want on the Board.

Now to other matters that deserve our attention. As you may have heard by now, the IVGID Board, at its meeting tonight, will have its first hearings on the renewal of the contract with Waste Management, the company that handles trash and recycling in the District. In this hearing, the public has the opportunity to give the Board its input on this matter, one that affects all of us.

To be sure, Waste Management has been doing a good job for the District to date. They have shown that recycling is a viable business for them in Incline and when you factor in the fees they pay, it is profitable to the District as well. For a very small part of our utility bill we have the advantage of having much of our recyclable trash picked up at curbside and the ability to bring other recyclables, particularly corrugated cardboard, to the facility as well.

Still, we could have more. Right now only number 1 and 2 plastic bottles are accepted for recycling, leaving other plastics to go into the trash. Judging my what I see in the streets on trash pick-up days, many people do not bring corrugated cardboard in to be recycled, and non-corrugated cardboard of the type used in many household items is not accepted for recycling. Finally, the trash/recycling facility on Sweetwater is open only until noon on weekends.

If you believe as I do that recycling has a clear benefit to the environment, tonight’s meeting is an opportunity to let the Board and Waste Management know you want more – not because there is anything wrong with the job they’ve done to date – there isn’t - but because we’ve sent the benefits of that to the District and to the environment and want to extend those benefits.

I would like to see pickup of all cardboard – corrugated or not – at curbside, extension of the plastics recycling to containers other than bottles and extension of the facility’s hours until 4 or 5 on weekends so that residents who spend their day building or cleaning up aren’t restricted to the morning hours to bring in their trash or recycling.

Whether you agree with this or not, tonight is an opportunity to make your views heard by the Board early in the contract renewal process, while there is still time for them and Waste Management to research the impact of these proposals and see what makes economic and environmental sense.

If we can turn out a couple of hundred people for a debate on a non-issue like “affordable housing” then surely we can pack the hall for this, an issue that will have immediate effects on all of us.

Column 92 (National) - Education

Due to a combination of work travel and a death in the family, I missed the deadline for a head-to-head column with Jim Clark last Sunday. The Bonanza was kind enough to provide space today, and since Jim addressed education, I’ll do the same.

I agree with Jim that the data on all-day kindergarten are not persuasive, and it was probably a good move on Governor Gibbons’ part not to commit to it. I don’t know that I would attribute quite the same dark motives to those who support all-day kindergarten that Jim does, but in a time of limited education budgets, it doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

For the past year or so I’ve been working with an organization called the Center for Excellence in Research, Teaching, and Learning (CERTL) at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. CERTL has mostly been involved in curriculum improvement, but more recently was impressed with a very substantial body of data that indicates that communication and collaboration amongst teachers, administrators, students, and parents is a, if not the critical determinant of student achievement. Based on that, CERTL asked the organization I work for to join with them under a grant from the National Education Association to do a pilot program to see if, by improving communication we could impact student achievement. We are working with six schools in Winston-Salem – we purposely targeted the six schools in the district that are in the most trouble under No Child Left Behind standards and have been working with the Principals and key staff in these schools.

I just got back from our third workshop session with the teams from the schools – we have two people from CERTL who provide on-site coaching and support between the workshops – and was very impressed with the progress the schools are making. Trust and morale levels are rising, even in a couple of the schools where communication had been pretty much non-existent. More importantly, students are starting to feel the impact of the change. Let me tell you about one example:

Jerilyn is a first-grader who has been a behavior problem since day one. Finally the teacher called in the school guidance counselor, who is a participant in our program, to evaluate him. The counselor, using communication and listening skills she attributed to her work with us, heard something and asked Jerilyn “do you like to read?” Jerilyn replied in his usual surly tone “yeah.” She went on to ask, “do you like to read hard books?” “yeah.” So she had him start reading – first grade, second grade, third grade level books – he breezed through them all, so she took him to the Librarian who gave him more advanced books – up to fifth grade level and he aced them all. She gave him a comprehension test and found he understood what he was reading perfectly. The Counselor then took him around to the Principal, the Assistant Principal and others and had him read for them.

On the way back to his classroom, Jerilyn burst into tears. Asked why, he said “This is the best day of my life! Nobody ever bragged on me before, nobody ever told me I was smart.”

Jim talked about the Edmonton Experiment in schools running themselves – that experiment is based on the same premise as our work in Winston-Salem – that if you give teachers the freedom to teach and don’t hogtie them with tests, regulations, arbitrary standards, and red tape, they will teach and students will learn – that’s all they want to do, and given the opportunity they will do it. It’s very early days for Governor Gibbons, and readers of this column will know that I’m no fan of his. But if he is serious about implementing self-determination for our schools and our teachers, he’ll have my support on that at least, and I’d urge you to ask our representatives in the legislature to support this very worthwhile program.