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“Garbage!… Get ya garbage!”

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By Emily Portner, on June 14, 2010

I came to Chapel Hill all the way from Tucson, Arizona. I stepped foot on Franklin Street, drove through the Franklin/Rosemary Historic District, and fell in love within 3 hours. I was looking at about 5 different schools to go to for undergrad but in those first few seconds when I experienced the feeling of warmth and welcome inherent to Chapel Hill, my decision was made. My parents can attest to the fact that I called them in AZ after one afternoon and said, “This is it. This is where I’m going to school.” And I’ve been living here for the past 4 years.  

I share this personal anecdote with you because I have grown accustomed to Chapel Hill as a pristine southern college town. I, along with many others, am guilty of taking for granted the high quality of life that the Town’s residents and students enjoy. We are used to Franklin street being decorated with banners during football and basketball season, the streets being clean the morning after winning a national championship, and the highways and residential backroads being drivable during a heavy rain. In the midst of our everyday lives, we lose sight of the tremendous amount of work that the 750 employees of the Town of Chapel Hill do to preserve the culture, traditions, and physical landscape of America’s Most Livable City .

This week I met with nearly 10 department heads with job responsibilities ranging from affordable housing, to solid waste disposal, to finance and budget management. Now that I work behind the veil, I have become truly fascinated with the amount and variety of services that the Town provides that I take for granted every single day. Let me give you a example…

The University and the Town have always had a positive relationship, something that Town Manager (and UNC MPA alum!) Roger Stancil works hard to renew. But (as I know all too well), UNC students pose a challenge for Town operations. I met with the Town’s solid waste director who described for me a “phenomenon” that occurs in Chapel Hill every year around the middle of May: the 17,000 students that make up the UNC population evacuate Chapel Hill in mass droves. That’s right… they move out (I can hear the groans now!).

He describes the 3 weeks after students leave as the busiest and most frustrating months of his year. Here’s why…

The pictures of trash and bulk items may seem outrageous to you but I have been assured that these sights are quite normal along the streets of Chapel Hill come move out time. Sometimes move out means a U-Haul rental and friends to help you lift your belongings into the back of the truck, but often times, us students just decide to get rid of it all and buy new stuff next year – especially when it involves a hand-me-down couch! There’s a few things wrong with this:

  1. The Town no longer picks up cardboard. So what does the Town do with the cardboard left behind?
  2. Picking up bulk items requires a special crew with special trucks that drop the items off at a location different from the regular landfill. So how does the Town arrange for the disposal of these items while out on a scheduled route?
  3. Because of these special considerations, pick-up of a bulk item involves a fee of $15.. So who pays the Town to cover the operational cost of picking these items up when students have already left or the items are dumped on public property?

I use this example to show that even when we don’t think about it, the Town is working around the clock to keep this place beautiful. No one wants to drive through streets that are littered with the ghosts of your grandmother’s old living room, so the Town picks them up and takes them away. They don’t make a big deal out of it and we don’t even notice how they do it. All you know is that when you come home on Tuesday afternoon, the garbage and recycling you put down at the end of your driveway is taken away. And that’s just how we like it.

So the next time you drive home and your streets are clean of trash, recycling, and yard waste, you have the Town to thank. Maybe that will help to change your perspective and lead you to understand and appreciate just how lucky we really are to live in Chapel Hill. Who knows, maybe you’ll even attend a Town Council meeting to voice your appreciation…

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3 Responses to ““Garbage!… Get ya garbage!””

  1. rakesh kumar

    hey sis i am from india. i want to do this management programme which you have learnt so kindly tell me about the fee structure of the university please . awaiting for your reply

  2. Joel Galbraith

    Interesting insights and post Emily. I don’t take our Durham Disposal for granted, and am especially pleased with the recycling program they provide. I trust the materials are then being properly recycled and maybe even providing some revenue for the city or county.

    Does green(yard) waste and/or recycling usually at least pay for itself in NC local govts? …maybe that’s naive thinking. I worked on a food prep/green waste project many years ago in Utah that demonstrated both savings and profit through decreased water use and public sale of compost/mulch.

  3. Gini Hamilton

    As a Chapel Hill resident, I really enjoyed this post. The topic reminded me of the story that Sean Brandon, MPA class of 2001, told about his first interest in public administration at age 12, watching Star Wars and wondering what the people on the death star did with their trash! Thanks for sharing the interesting details of your work.

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