It's 2015, and yet you'd never know it based on two recent decisions by the City of Oakland and the State of California. In both instances, the city and the state have chosen to penalize citizens who have worked hard to safeguard the environment while rewarding those who pollute, waste energy, and hasten climate change. WTF?
In Oakland, the mind-numbingly dumb decision concerns the city's new garbage contract. Under the terms of the deal, which took effect on July 1, the city's private waste hauler, Waste Management, is now charging restaurants higher rates for composting their food scraps than for throwing them away. In addition, residents who have been doing a good job recycling have been hit with much higher rate hikes than those who toss everything in the trash (see "Oakland's Trash Program Promotes Waste," page 12).
Similarly, the California Public Utilities Commission voted earlier this month to allow PG&E and other utilities to raise electricity rates for consumers who have been conserving energy, including for homeowners who have installed rooftop solar panels, while lowering rates for energy hogs. In other words, both the city and the state have decided to punish good behavior and reward bad behavior.
In the case of Oakland, part of the problem apparently can be chalked up to incompetence. It looks as if no one on the city council bothered to read the fine print of the new garbage contract concerning excessively high composting rates for restaurants and other businesses. Under the new contract, some busy restaurants now pay $458 a month for composting, compared to $381 for trash. However, because restaurant owners have been complaining loudly about this disparity, and are threatening to throw away nearly all of their green waste rather than pay the ridiculously high composting prices, it looks as if the city and Waste Management may work out a deal for lower rates.
But there doesn't seem to be any such pact in the works involving the residential recycling penalties, despite the similarly screwed up priorities. Residents who've been doing a great job recycling and use the smallest garbage container (20 gallons), have been slapped with a 44.5 percent-rate hike. By comparison, people who use the larger, 32-gallon container have experienced only a 23.6 percent increase. And it gets worse. Under the new deal, residents who generate lots of garbage, and use the 64-gallon can, are only getting a 3.4 percent increase, while those who have the biggest trash can possible — 96 gallons — are seeing just a 2.3 percent hike. You read that right. Folks who have done the best job diverting waste from pollution-stuffed landfills got rate hikes that are more than twenty times larger than those who throw away the most trash.
The city and Waste Management have argued that the 20-gallon rates had to go up the most because of the costs of doing business. They say the cost to pick up a 20-gallon can is similar to that of 32-, 64-, or 96-gallon cans. And so they say the old system was unfair because people with smaller cans were effectively being subsidized by households with larger ones.
PG&E and the state PUC have made a similar argument: that the basic infrastructure costs associated with delivering electricity to each home is not that much different, regardless of how much energy people use. As such, they contend that the prior system in which energy-conscious consumers with low rates were effectively being subsidized by people who use lots of energy and pay high rates was also unfair.
Unfair? Umm, no. In fact, the whole point of incentive-based systems is to reward good behavior. We want people to recycle more and conserve energy. And the most effective way to do that is to reward them with lower rates while penalizing energy hogs who fill up our landfills. Government should be in the business of setting up these types of progressive, incentive-based systems, not dismantling them.
Now, some people have rightly argued that garbage and utility rates are regressive, because they're based largely on consumption rather than on people's ability to pay. That's true. Large rate increases for low-income families are unfair, especially for big families that use more energy and generate more garbage. But the new city and state rules are also rewarding wealthy McMansion owners who keep their AC on all the time and throw lots of lavish, trash-producing, parties.
Moreover, in the era of Big Data, it's possible for the city and state to establish a more progressive sliding-scale system for garbage and energy use that would also reward citizens for doing the right thing. The state Franchise Tax Board already knows people's incomes, so why not consider that info when establishing rate structures? That way, a person's ability to pay would be a factor — along with his or her efforts to save the planet.
Rich people will complain, of course. But considering the fact that the wealthiest 1 percent has reaped nearly all the financial rewards of the current economic recovery, it's only fair that they should pay more, especially if they waste energy and don't recycle.