Household rubbish is a lot like pooping. No-one particularly wants to talk about it and we take it for granted when the systems work well and whisk it out of our sight.
But if you've ever been painfully constipated or watched in horror as the toilet backed up and threatened to overflow with floaters, you know how waste demands our attention when systems break down.
The Council's survey on waste collection in our city has stirred up a lot of response in the Chronicle's letters page. Mostly the tone has been negative; there's even been a conspiracy theory put forward. That's a shame, because the topic matters and diatribes won't lead to the best solution.
We are not currently well served in Whanganui by the current arrangement, whereby two private contractors are reducing services and increasing costs. Well-informed sources say Waste Management and EnviroWaste are pushing wheelie-bins over bags because it is far more profitable. Any talk of sanitation or health and safety is just a smoke-screen.
Privately, I'm also told that Council is not expecting ratepayer support for a Council-funded weekly pick up of rubbish and recycling. Including this option on the survey was just testing the waters.
Sadly, most of the angry letters to the editor missed the point: Council could organise weekly collection of both rubbish and recycling for less than the equivalent private collection of rubbish only. So yes, rates would go up by a small amount, but people could save more by cancelling private rubbish collection; and we'd get a better service.
But here's where it unravels: the rating burden is highest on households with only one or two occupants, on low, fixed incomes. That's the majority of retired people (although not only them) and Whanganui has lots of them.
Read also: Hard decisions needed on Whanganui's waste collection
Many add very little to the waste stream, only needing to put out a bag of rubbish and not necessarily every week.
Then, add in families like mine. We can't claim to be zero-waste heroes, but the way we live means less than a bag of rubbish a month. And that includes the litter I resentfully pick up from the verge.
This led to a headache when faced with the Council's survey. Do I opt for what is best for us: merely that Council steps in to collect bags if necessary? Or do I choose the best option for the community and the environment (a full Council-run service), which increases our costs?
While I'm glad the Council is assessing what good it can do in this space, I'm irked that its survey of householders was a waste of money and opportunity. Research is only as good as the design and this survey had multiple problems.
The most serious flaw is that responses won't be representative and there is no way to gauge to what extent. The survey results, still to be announced, are useless as an accurate gauge of community feeling.
It will most likely collate the views of retired people on fixed incomes who have lots of time, still check their mailbox, know how to post a letter and who reliably protest at any hint of a rate increase.
This is also a group less likely to be currently paying for wheelie bins, so there is no personal financial incentive to support a council-run, full-service collection.
I simply cannot imagine a problem for which a postal survey is now a solution. For years, the only mail that's been delivered to the vast majority on New Zealanders is either bills or direct marketing.
Even bills have largely migrated to email. What motivation is there to clear your mailbox? What percentage of surveys earnestly delivered to every household were even opened? I keenly await news about how many surveys were returned.
Much more insight could have been gained by commissioning a phone survey of a representative sample of Whanganui residents, taking care to gather opinions from households of all sizes and income levels, home owners and renters and from across our district. (The only caveat with phone surveys is that they must include mobile phone users.)
I greatly admire the civic-mindedness found in older generations, that sees them turn out to public meetings in the run-up to local body elections, read the local papers, write letters to the editor and generally stay abreast of and involved in local affairs. They are the same people shouldering the lion's share of work running community organisations and clubs.
I am also tired of the automatic backlash to any positive initiative proposed by Council that would improve social outcomes and amenity. It ignores stark facts: Whanganui rates are high because we have too few households over which to spread the costs of maintaining, and eventually replacing, ageing and vital infrastructure.
The best way to lower the rate demand is to encourage newcomers to make their homes here: people with energy, commitment and skills, such that they can make their own livelihood or even employ others.
Read more: Rachel Rose: Save your 'shock' and 'outrage' for what really matters
I doubt we're going to see any improvement to waste collection on a systems level, so we're left with the inefficiency and cost of finding individual solutions. If you produce little rubbish, I suggest you horde a year or two's worth of rubbish bag stickers and, when there is no other option, share a wheelie bin with one or more neighbours.
Rachel Rose is a Whanganui-based writer. More at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer