The privatization of garbage collection in Calgary

It rolled out in April — but why?

Every so often Calgary city council makes a big decision that sort of slides under the radar at the time.

Such is the case with the city's partial privatization of garbage collection, which came into effect last month. An Ontario-based company, GFL Environmental, is now picking up residential black-cart trash in the city's northwest and some of the southwest. (City workers still handle green and blue cart collection citywide.)

In November 2019, city council voted 11-4 to privatize up to 25% of the city's black cart collection service, a decision made during a busy council meeting amid little fanfare.

Private industry has long coveted residential trash collection, but the city's unionized workers and fleet were doing the job—and, according to the city's citizen satisfaction surveys, doing it consistently well.

Unlike, say, snow clearing, the service wasn't a target of public ire.

“I'm just wondering what's broken,” said then-Councillor Druh Farrell before the decisive 2019 vote.

“We get almost no complaints about waste and recycling.... I’m really trying to understand why we would do this.”

Unlikely to see 'substantial' savings

At the urging of various city councils, city hall has investigated residential waste privatization numerous times over the years—with the usual hiring of consultants to look into the matter.

A 2008 city report stated that “since Waste & Recycling Services and any private sector provider would be delivering the service in the same economic climate, it is unlikely there are any substantial cost savings in collecting residential waste through contracted services.”

A 2015 city analysis stated that any “potential private contracting savings due to lower employee benefits and fleet costs would be offset by additional contract management costs and private sector profit.”

A 2018 review found that if the city contracted out a third of all its waste collection—black, green and blue carts—the city could potentially save $850,000 a year, or less than 2% of the city's waste collection budget. That review also found that a mixed public-private model, which is what Calgary has adopted, posed potential reliability and safety risks.

This is about competition, this is about measuring.

Ward Sutherland, former city councillor, in 2019

At the decisive meeting in 2019, council members acknowledged that they'd been lobbied by industry. Visitor registries for councillor offices that year show Cam Hantiuk, a director with the Alberta Waste Management Association, meeting with numerous councillors. Other industry lobbyists also met with councillors.

Then-Councillor Ward Sutherland, who led the push for privatization, said it was a chance to “look at efficiencies.”

“This is about competition, this is about measuring,” said Sutherland at the time. “This is an opportunity for us, the first time ever, that we could have a contracted-out service and an in-house service and compare the two.”

He argued that a pilot project like this was a low-risk move.

“I'm not asking for 100% [privatization],” said Sutherland. “I think that's high risk. And I wouldn't wouldn't want to do it because obviously if it's 100%, three years later they jack up the contract and we're compromised.”

“This is a nice entry to take a look at it.”

What's the tradeoff?

The pilot is slated to run until 2029, and the contract to GFL Environmental is worth $14.5 million for the seven years.

“In many ways, I think it's going to leapfrog this current council in terms of the decision-making,” Ward 3 Councillor Jasmine Mian told The Sprawl. Mian's northern ward includes some neighbourhoods that have city garbage pickup, and some that have GFL pickup (Mian says she's heard no complaints about the transition so far).

Even though the pilot was decided by the previous council and won't end until a future council takes over, Mian says there will be important questions to ask. “Is this actually a better customer experience for people? How does it impact the city's reputation? What does it mean for workers?” Mian said.

It really gets down to the fundamental conversation about what should be publicly delivered and what should be privately delivered.

Jasmine Mian,

City councillor, Ward 3

There are good reasons to ask these and other questions, given how garbage collection privatization has played out in other Canadian cities.

In Toronto, partial privatization (also through GFL Environmental) hasn't cut costs as hoped. And in Winnipeg, an APTN investigation found that after the city privatized garbage collection there a decade ago, the contractor hired temporary day workers to do unsafe work without proper protections.

Workers for private contractors are usually paid less than city workers, who are unionized—an issue that former Mayor Naheed Nenshi raised when the Calgary decision was made in 2019.

“Today, we have a community where someone can get a job, drive a garbage truck, make a decent living, send their kids to university, and have a decent retirement,” said Nenshi. “And I think that's part of the social contract that we have in the community.”

“For a savings of $1 to $2 per household per year, to replace that person with someone who makes minimum wage, can't afford to send their kids to university, can't afford to be part of the community—I'm not sure that's a social contract that is worth moving forward on.”

We get almost no complaints about waste and recycling…. I’m really trying to understand why we would do this.

Druh Farrell, former city councillor, in 2019

GFL Environmental didn’t respond to questions from The Sprawl for this story. City admin wouldn't say how much it has cost so far to make the transition—but plans to report this information to council annually.

The city's waste department hopes to save up to a million dollars a year through the pilot, but acknowledges that “this depends on any price increases negotiated by the vendor and the cost of managing the contract.”

“It's very, very small savings,” said Mian. “And so the question is going to be... with that type of very small savings, what is the tradeoff of doing that?”

“It really gets down to the fundamental conversation about what should be publicly delivered and what should be privately delivered. And what are we prioritizing in those conversations? Because there are always going to be equity and efficiency tradeoffs.”

Of the eleven council members who voted for the privatization pilot, only three remain on council today: Jyoti Gondek, Sean Chu and Peter Demong.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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