Can leaf cleanup on behalf of the city be considered a negative externality when it's on a large scale?

Ask an Economist
Question: 

I have a landscaping company that services large gated communities. We maintain approximately 60 such sites many of which are constantly bombarded by leaves during the fall. I have estimated (very conservatively) that our crews spend at least one hour per site cleaning up this mess for about 10 weeks each year. This scenario is true for 40 of our sites. Thus, we spend approximately 40 hrs/week cleaning up these leaves. At another conservative rate of $20/hr, this mean we are spending $800/week or/ $8000 for the 10 weeks the leaves fall. This cost does not reflect the additional green waste dump fee we pay but for simplicity it can be ignored.

Is this in your opinion a negative externality I could charge the city for at year end? If this was just my home and I had to clean up the city's leaves I would not have a problem. Is there a threshold of a financial burden that may be achieved before a lawsuit can be considered viable?

Answer: 

A negative externality often describes a situation where a power plant or a farmer's production led to pollution and lost ecosystem services. In this case, it might be tricky to argue that these leaves are a result of the city's "production" or "actions." It is a different matter if the city purposely sweeps the leaves off public streets into your gated communities. In many cities, it is the homeowner or homeowner association's responsibilities to collect and bag leaves, and the cities may pick up for free, or for a small Leaf Day fee in Portland from 2010 to 2018. Another tricky thing is that if you argue the fallen leaves are a negative externality, the city could counter that the shade and the fall colors are positive natural amenities enjoyed by the community. 

Answered by:
Dr. Wendong Zhang
Assistant Professor
Last updated on December 3, 2020