By Edward Keenan
As Neville Park notes in her always handy City Council cheat sheet, Councillor Mike Layton has a motion at the upcoming meeting asking for answers about a certain aspect of Toronto’s contracted-out garbage collection. He’s requesting an administrative inquiry into why the City has, after all the hoopla about private collector Green For Life’s success in District 2, decided not to renew its contract with that company for District 1 and instead put it out to tender. Layton tells me he was told at the March Works committee meeting that the decision was related to the number of complaints coming in from District 1. And the staff letter that was posted in response to Layton’s inquiry as I was writing this confirms that was one of the reasons:
The current term of the contract with Green for Life (GFL) for the curbside collection of material in District 1 is for seven years which began July 1, 2008 and is ending June 30, 2015 with the option to extend for 2 one-year terms. The option to extend the 2 one-year terms was at the sole discretion of the General Manager of Solid Waste Management Services (SWMS).
There are three main reasons for the decision not to extend the contract for an additional 2 one-year terms: 1. The replacement and automation of green bins 2. The increase of complaints in District 1 due to aging vehicles; and 3. Amending the current contract language to better meet needs. [...]
Over the last several months, staff have seen an increase of complaints in District 1. This is primarily due to the age of the existing fleet that the contractor has in District 1. When the fleet ages, there are inherently more break downs, which cause later pick up times. This results in residents calling into 311 to state that their garbage has not been picked up.
A bit of history: the City’s garbage collection is divided into four districts. District 1, which is in Etobicoke, has been contracted out to private operators since before amalgamation. In late 2011, that contract was held by a company called Turtle Island Recycling. Also in 2011, the City voted to contract out garbage in District 2—i.e., the rest of the city west of Yonge Street. That contract was awarded to a company called Green For Life. In December 2011, Green For Life bought Turtle Island, so the one company was now responsible for all garbage pickup in Districts 1 and 2. City staff continued to collect garbage (as they always had) in Districts 3 and 4, which is the entire city east of Yonge Street.
The City has decided not to exercise its option to renew the contract in District 1 with Green For Life (GFL), and is putting it out to tender, in part because of the number of complaints in recent months.
This is interesting, because the low number of complaints in District 2 has been part of the contracting-out success story: Better collection! Way cheaper! Hooray! But since the very same company collects the garbage in District 1, it may be worth looking at and talking about what’s going on if the quality of service there has proven to be drastically worse.
There are various ways to measure success in garbage collection. One is cost—which, when dealing with the contractors, is a known commodity once the contract is signed. But the key metric it seems the City uses to measure the quality of the service is the number of complaints received. In order to compare like with like (since there are different numbers of residents in different districts), it tabulates the number of complaints “per 1,000 pass-bys”—complaints per 1,000 passes of houses by tucks.
The City does offer information beyond what’s included in their recent explanatory letter, if you dig a little bit, on complaint monitoring. And we can take a look to see what’s happening at the top line, at least. I took the complaint reports for the past year and a bit in the charts here and here, and made a graph of them:
You can see in the left side of the graph that, as private collection begins in District 2 in August 2012, there’s a huge spike in complaints, which you might expect since it’s a transition period during which a fleet of new trucks with new drivers is learning the ropes. That falls off fairly dramatically over a couple of months, and then District 2 is consistently among the lowest-complaining areas. We also see complaints drop dramatically in the areas where City staff are still in charge of collection, especially District 3, but also, in the final six months of this period, in District 4. It appears, as Philip Preville wrote recently in Toronto Life, that competition from GFL has gotten City staff to pick up their pick up game, and that the threat each camp represents to the other inspires both to do a better job.
But what’s going on in District 1? To be able to see the situation more clearly, I made a different graph of just the 2013 numbers, removing the scale-warping effects of the changeover in 2012:
Here, it’s clear that, even during the time when we (and our politicians) have been marvelling at the great job GFL has been doing in District 2, they’re seeing far more complaints in the other district they collect in. And after May 2013, they appear to be getting far more complaints than all the other districts, including both the ones collected by the City and the ones collected by their co-workers. Over subsequent many months, the GFL staff and fleet in District 1 are drawing more than twice as many complaints as their colleagues in the rest of the west end—and dramatically more, too, than the City staff collecting garbage at the other end of the city.
In fairness: the City’s stated standard is to keep complaints under 1 per 1,000 pass-bys and, with the exception of July and August 2013 (when GFL in District 1 received 1.17 and 1.04 complaints per 1,000 pass-bys), all operators have achieved that goal over this entire year period. And looking at the longer trend, it doesn’t appear that the District 1 collectors have suddenly seen a huge rise in complaints since August 2012, so much as theirs have stayed fairly consistent year-over-year while everywhere else in the City has seen complaints drop way off.
Still, this complicates the narrative. Mayor Ford recently said in the National Post, “GFL has done a phenomenal job in everything west of Yonge. I want to see it go east of Yonge.” At the very least, the job is more phenomenal in some places west of Yonge than in others.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the competition now involved between the districts has driven some or all of the improvement in service we see on the whole over time. But it clearly isn’t simply the magic of the private sector alone responsible for the improvements, or even the great management of one company.
Does the City’s explanation—old trucks—satisfy Layton? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see if that’s all there is to the story or if there’s more to it. But, at the very least, we may need to be sure that we include language in our contracts about maintaining trucks, or keep the contracts themselves shorter so we can update terms as the City now wants to do. And it appears wise, as Preville wrote, to ensure we have competition within the city so that we can both inspire better service and meaningfully track how different areas are performing.
Photograph: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star
Graphs: Made with NCES children’s chart generator (which indicates the author’s graph-manufacturing level), using data from the City of Toronto