It’s time for San Diego to talk trash

Students in Kate Ricke’s spring class develop a model focusing on the city’s outdated trash policies – and provide recommendations for policymakers to enact change

July 30, 2020 | By Virginia Watson | GPS News

According to some, the waste management policies in the City of San Diego are – well, garbage. 

And five UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) students have set out to do their part to change it. 

Kate RickeAs part of assistant professor Kate Ricke’s Policy Analysis and Decision Theory course during the spring quarter, students were challenged to develop a group project that comprised the bulk of the course.

“The project basically asks students to come up with a policy problem they’re interested in, and then for them to collect quantitative information and build a simple model to evaluate at least two policy options they’ve defined,” Ricke said. 

Ricke said she encourages students to explore policy issues close to home, as often the most successful projects are local in scale.

GPS students who partnered on the group project – Joe Bettles, Jack Christensen, Marianna Garcia, Elise Hanson and Aurora Livingston – chose to examine an outdated measure called the People’s Ordinance, passed by San Diego voters in 1919, that states the city will collect trash at no cost for all single-family homes. Most apartment residents, however, pay twice for trash collection – once through rent, and again through taxes.

“I grew up in San Diego and have always been surprised that the city provides free trash collection,” Bettles said. “While politicians will often mention the need to start charging residents for trash, it is third-rail politics because single family homeowners are the majority of the constituency in San Diego. I had never heard of anyone putting down hard numbers on how much the city would benefit, including how much trash could be diverted if a well designed trash collection system were put into place.”

The century-old provision is costly to the city – to the tune of around $34 million annually. The issue seemed particularly timely to the students, as city leaders navigate steep budget shortfalls amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

We felt that this issue was very important for the city, as there is momentum to evaluate city spending in light of the budget deficit,” Garcia said. “Trash is one of the city services that, when you crunch the numbers, considering alternative mechanisms for trash collection can be both cost saving and an efficient way to move forward.”

In their study, the students explored two alternatives to the current policy: a flat tax for waste management services for all single-family households, and a pay-as-you-throw method. Both options would provide a more equitable solution to the current model, the students said.

“The city’s current waste management policies are a drain on general funds and are an unfair burden on those who are excluded,” Livingston said. “In addition, too much waste is going to landfills, and San Diego is not on track to achieve its zero waste goal by 2040. The city needs to decide if spending $34 million a year to subsidize a program that is counterproductive to its zero waste plan and primarily benefits single-family homes is the proper distribution of increasingly scarce resources.”

Once the students completed the class project, they decided to take it a step further by using their findings to publish an opinion column in the Voice of San Diego. 

Left to right: Joe Bettles, Marianna Garcia, Elise Hanson, Jack Christensen, Aurora Livingston

Bettles said Voice of San Diego’s online-only platform was appealing to the group, as they could easily link to their publicly available study.

“Voice of San Diego is not the biggest publication in San Diego, but from my experience it is the one that people in power pay attention to the most,” Bettles said. “I have heard politicians at every level of government in San Diego reference their content. While we wanted to reach a broader San Diego audience, we also wanted the policy ideas to be read by policymakers.” 

Since the op-ed’s publication in late June, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Hanson said.

We expected significant pushback from city residents who were receiving free trash collection, simply because nobody wants a free thing taken away from them,” Hanson said. “What I personally didn’t expect was that so many people reached out in support of re-evaluating free trash collection. Other students in our class, GPS faculty and even family friends who live in East County expressed shock that some – but not all – city residents get free trash. I think that only allowing some residents to get a free public service strikes most people as unfair.”

And their work hasn’t stopped with the op-ed. Livingston said the group hopes to soon meet with senior leadership at the city’s Environmental Services Department (ESD) as well as a representative from the analytics department to give a presentation and have a question-and-answer session. However, the students acknowledge that a change in policy will require significant political capital. 

“In order to overturn the city measure, residents would need to work on a referendum campaign or have a local council member or mayor champion this initiative to make it on a ballot for a vote of the people,” Garcia said. “Speaking with government officials and engaging stakeholders is definitely a good first step to consider policy change in this arena. I personally would love to have the opportunity to work with government officials on further modeling price schemes and working with ESD to incorporate cost and budgetary constraints to our model.”

The students’ project also caught the eye of the GPS International Advisory Board (IAB) members, such as David Graham, the chief innovation officer for the City of Carlsbad. Graham said this type of work is exactly what organizations should be using to determine policy and strategy.

"This sort of localized policy work with top-notch talent is exactly the sort of brainpower we need to solve some of the toughest issues we are facing during this time,” Graham said.

Livingston noted that Ricke’s course was conducted entirely in a virtual environment due to the novel coronavirus pandemic; however, she added that Ricke’s expertise in her field and ability to present complex material in an understandable way makes the course essential for all GPS students.

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“Professor Ricke was completely transparent about the challenging times we are living in. Throughout the quarter, she remained engaged, passionate and understanding,” Livingston said. “While theory is an important foundation for studying public policy, this class allowed us to understand the practice of policy analysis and decision-making. Students who want exposure to how policies are evaluated in the real world and would like to develop their own skills using these various methodologies will learn a lot and truly enjoy this class.”

Ricke said her course was a natural fit for an online environment, as the modeling she teaches is all done on a computer to begin with. She worked to take advantage of the online learning forum to solicit real-time feedback from students about whether complex concepts were clear. 

“Students have to make the leap from understanding the policy problem in general to understanding the mechanics of creating the model,” Ricke said. One thing that’s nice about teaching online: if there are things students find marginally confusing, they can drop a question in the chat, and then I can see that question and think about how to address it.”

Ricke described this group’s ability to work well together and enthusiasm for the project as “a perfect storm, but in a good way.” 

“All the pieces came together very effectively for this group,” she said. 

When Ricke next teaches the class, she plans explicitly to bring up the idea of carrying the project outside of the classroom.

“I knew there was some precedent for these projects living beyond the class, but after seeing how successful this group was this year, I'll definitely hold this up as something to aspire to,” she said. “I certainly will give this as an example in future years.”

Additional student stories:

Building cross-border relationships

Walking the path to global sustainability

Battery storage at the center of energy policy

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