Garbage In, Garbage Out

How do you know when your city's sewage problem has gotten out of control? When a tall geyser explodes through the ground and swallows a Corvette. It happened late last year near Raleigh, N.C., according to local officials, and the cause was said to be cooking grease, the kind that slips down the drain and—unbeknownst to your average household chef—clogs sewage lines. To solve the problem, the city has taken a dramatic step: it's banned garbage disposals in homes. "We have very good Southern cooks [here] who like to season with animal fat and cooking oil," says Dale Crisp, the city's public-utilities director. "But grease clogs the lines like it does arteries, and our system is at the point where it's going to have a stroke."

When the city instituted the ban two weeks ago, it seemed logical enough. Sewage overflows cause property and environmental damage, not to mention health hazards. Raleigh already spends $10 million a year on overflow prevention, and the city can't afford to overhaul its 2,000 miles of antiquated sewer lines. So: forbid residents to install new or replace old disposals, threaten violators with a hefty fine (OK, a really hefty fine: $25,000 a day) and—voilà!—problem solved. But Raleigh's disposal ban, which affects 400,000 people in the region, has hit a nerve with citizens who believe a basic homeowner's right is on the line. "They're trying to put us back in the Dark Ages," says Jack Wagner, a 30-year Raleigh resident who says he'll move before he gives up his disposal. "It's just silly." Some residents worry that garbage volumes will increase as a result, crowding landfills, while others dispute the premise that grease is truly the culprit. Opposition to the ban has been so intense that its authors have sent it back to committee for review. "People are acting as if SWAT teams are going to come through their roofs and swipe their disposals," says council member Rodger Koopman. Is that any worse than what's coming up through the ground?