Sunday Commentary II: Does the Community Support Yard Waste Bins?

yard-waste-bike-path1As one who has encouraged the city to get behind the use of social engagement and other such tools to facilitate public dialogue, I am somewhat sympathetic to the city here. One the other hand, pumping up survey results to bolster public policy in a town like Davis is fraught with risk.

The Vanguard has long supported a containerization of green waste to avoid the unsightly, messy, and potentially hazardous dumping of waste onto the sides of streets where it gets swept into storm drains and presents added hazards to bikes.

Today, City Manager Dirk Brazil has an op-ed on the other side of the street where he explains the programmatic changes that may occur, which include an organic cart picked up with trash and recycling once a week, and yard waste piles collected monthly, except October through mid-December when they’ll be collected weekly.

All of this is fine, however, then he writes: “The city used Davis Together::Engage, a survey tool, to gauge customer feelings and solicit feedback on the proposed program.  Of the 341 residents who took the survey, 58 percent of customers indicated that the level of service in the proposed program would meet their needs and 82% stated that they thought collecting and composting organics would be beneficial to the City.”

The city’s use of the “Davis Together::Engage” however convinces distinguished professor Arthur Shapiro to write that perhaps it is true that most residents are all right with the yard waste bins. He writes that, based on what we know, we have “no reason to believe that.”

He argues, “To assess whether a sample was adequate and to estimate a survey’s margin of error, one needs to know the survey’s design. But this ‘survey’ isn’t really a survey in any valid statistical sense, and it has no apparent design.”

The problem starts here: “How can we tell whether the 335 respondents adequately represent community opinion? They are self-selected, which is to say likely to be highly motivated on the issue.”

He continues, “What percentage of Davis households knew that a survey was being conducted? For that matter, what percentage of Davis households have ever heard of the ‘Davis Together :: Engage social media tool,’ let alone have accessed it? And how did they learn about it?”

Professor Shapiro concludes, “Anyone with any experience in survey design and implementation can immediately recognize the ‘results’ reported in your story as worthless. Surely America’s most-educated city can do better than this.”

Another writer, Neil Rubenking, makes the same point, “If you have a random sample of 300-odd from a population of 50,000 (Davis residents over 18) then you can draw conclusions with a reasonable expectation of accuracy.”

He continues, “But this survey is absolutely the opposite of random. Any residents who don’t choose to go online were excluded. Any who found the ‘Together::Engage’ page to be impossibly rah-rah were excluded. Any who spend all their time online but not on local sites were excluded. The sample responders were totally self-selected.”

He concludes, “All conclusions that imagine this survey to represent Davis residents are patently flawed. If this is in any way unclear, please find a stats prof at UCD and get confirmation. I would hope for a retraction of all statements that imply the survey represents what Davisites think. (For what it’s worth, I did complete the survey).”

While the critics here are of course correct – we need to be more careful with how we present and use non-random surveys of public opinion, especially when we use them to support public policy – I would stop short of stating that this is meaningless.

However, I would treat this more like public comment. What does public comment tell us? Well first of all, public commenters tell us who the motivated people are who will speak out on a given issue.

Second, public commenters may be able to identify issues and problems that staff and council had not considered.

What public comment does not tell us is the direction or distribution of opinion within the broader community. It is not a poll or an election. And, therefore, it should not be used as such.

One of the critical questions we have to ask with the survey tool is whether it is possible for someone to vote twice. I remember some time ago that the Enterprise used to have reader polls. That worked until they had a very controversial question and people figured out how they could get around the site’s cookies to manipulate the poll.

My take away from this is that using these engagement tools as a guide is fine. But I would suggest – particularly in a highly educated community with people well-versed on survey research methodology ‒ that the city avoid presenting the results like they would a poll.

Dirk Brazil in his op-ed addresses a few other points. A number of people have expressed concerns that they do not have room for a third cart. He writes, “In addition to the standard 95-gallon carts, Davis Waste Removal will provide 35 and 65-gallon carts to customers upon request.  Using the recycling and organics carts will greatly reduce what is placed into the garbage cart.  This will allow some customers to reduce the size of their garbage cart which will free up space for the organics cart.”

As we have noted, many other communities have three carts and have somehow made it work – many of them have had such programs in place for a decade or two.

Mr. Brazil also indicates that “the City is also looking into ‘opt-out,’ ‘share-a-can’ and variable rate charges for the organics program.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Biddlin

    It is heartening to see the Vanguard, foursquare, in favour of the container vendors fuel suppiers and truck manufacturers, for they are who benefit most  from the greenwaste containerisation.


  2. Barack Palin

    I’m a little skeptical of the once a month yard waste pile pickups.  I can see neighbors having the same piles sitting out in front of their houses for 2,3,4 weeks at a time.  Unless the city is going to enforce that people can only put these piles out a few days before pickup it sounds like it’s going to create quite a mess.

    Secondly, when the organic and yard waste is canned there’s no way for the driver to see if the contents are appropriate.  Just this week I happened to be outside when a neighbor had a huge cement block imbedded in their yard waste pile.  The driver came by and scooped up the pile but somehow noticed the cement and dropped the whole pile and left a note with my neighbor.  I’ve had my pile refused because I had sod in it which I didn’t know wasn’t acceptable.  Point being if I had a can that sod would’ve been wrongly collected.

  3. Frankly

    Green waste containers are essentially the bike activists in town demanding rent-free use of everyone else’s limited residential yard space just so they can secure their precious platinum bike city status.  The actual costs and the negative impacts to everyone far outweigh the de minimis benefit derived.  Time to drop it and move on to some real important city business.

      1. Frankly

        I would hope there is the option and am even willing to pay something for street pickup if necessary.  But I am still not convinced that green waste containers are a net benefit to the city factoring all the considerations.

  4. Ron

    I agree that the city apparently did not conduct a real survey.  I also agree that there are significant problems with having a “hybrid” program, as noted by others.  Other problems include the scheduling of major pruning tasks (at the same time as others), which may limit the ability to hire/schedule arborists (or to do it ourselves).  In addition, having piles of yard waste in the street “sometimes” does not actually address the concern of bicyclists (especially if yard waste is now piled in the street for extended periods of time). Also, since hazardous material can still be hidden in carts (or left in street piles during planned pickups), I don’t see any reduction of that risk. Finally, I don’t see any cost savings with a hybrid program. What, exactly, does this accomplish? (It seems to me that the only concern regarding the current arrangement comes from bicyclists, on streets that are heavily used. Perhaps we could just address those concerns, directly?)

  5. zaqzaq

    Most of us do not schedule our pruning based when the yard waste will be picked up.  The type of yard and how old it is will determine the amount of green waste.  For most weekends a container is doable.  When you do the large pruning jobs the container will not work.  I do not see residents scheduling their yard work around a large waste pickup schedule.  It is usually the weekend that you have the time to do it based on family schedules.  If they force the issue on containers and mine is full after a large job it will just go into the regular trash bin.  I am not going to store it somewhere for next weeks pickup.

    1. David Greenwald

      While most don’t do that now – they probably will adjust in the future to accommodate the policy. I already time when I throw big things out based on the garbage pick up schedule.

      1. zaqzaq

        My garbage can is rarely ever half full on any week with all the recycling we do which leave me ample room for excess green waste if they go to that policy.

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