Trash Collection a la Carte

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Power to the Peeples is an exclusive Earth911 series written by Bob Peeples, a chemical engineer. Bob combines his extensive knowledge of the environment and how things work with an off-the-cuff sense of humor.

Twenty-five years ago, many solid waste planners thought no more than 15 to 20 percent of the municipal waste stream could be recycled. Today, several communities have surpassed 50 percent recycling, and individual businesses can recycle up to 90 percent of their waste.

As the demand for recycling grows, planners are looking for ways to encourage higher recycling rates. One such means is the adoption of the pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) billing method.

The Nitty-Gritty on PAYT

PAYT was designed to encourage recycling and cut the amount of municipal solid waste —ordinary household trash, which doesn’t include any hazardous waste or construction debris— that needs to be collected. The basic premise is that residents are charged for collection based on the amount they throw away.

It’s important to understand that PAYT is not a recycling program, but a waste reduction program. It’s optimized with the support of complementary programs (recycling, composting) to divert the waste, and residents take control of their collection expenses.

Before we go any farther, let’s figure out where our trash comes from, courtesy of the EPA:

Table of Trash Types and Percentages
Trash Type % of Waste Volume
Paper 40.4 71.6 million tons
Yard trimmings 17.6 31.6 million tons
Metals 8.5 15.3 million tons
Plastics 8.0 14.4 million tons
Food scraps 7.4 13.2 million tons
Glass 7.0 12.5 million tons
Other* 11.6 20.8 million tons

*“Other” includes rubber, leather, textiles, wood, miscellaneous inorganic wastes, etc.

Because all of these items are generally recyclable (though not necessarily collected in your curbside program), it’s conceivable that a family with a PAYT program could end up paying for the collection of one bag of trash while recycling four other bags of material at no or reduced cost.

How it Helps

Here’s a few of the advantages to a PAYT program:

  • Fair Pricing—Simply put, you’re only paying for what you send to a landfill so it teaches people to pay more attention to their waste. In other systems, any money that recyclers are saving on tipping fees at the landfill subsidizes those that are unwilling to limit their waste.
  • Increased Recycling, Composting and Waste Reduction—When a PAYT program is combined with a curbside recycling program, it can increase a community’s recycling rate between 20 and 27 percent. In addition, PAYT has been shown to decrease a community’s residential trash generation rate.
  • Improved Environmental Quality—The bottom line: recycling is good for the environment. It reduces the need for new landfills and incinerators, saves natural resources and energy, reduces pollution from the extraction of raw materials and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Economic Sustainability—It costs money to pick-up waste each week, from the costs of trucks and transportation to maintenance of landfills. This is literally the definition of a “sunk cost” as this waste gets piled on for generations with no value to the city. PAYT can cut these costs for local governments struggling to cope with soaring waste management fees, reduced collection, disposal and transportation costs. Also, don’t forget, recyclables bring in money.

Follow the Money

So how does a PAYT program monitor what you are throwing away? Most systems still charge a small flat fee or base rate to cover fixed costs of collection, but here’s a few ways that trash output can be monitored:

  1. Labeled Bags: In this case, only bags specially printed by the community waste system are accepted. These are purchased from local retailers or by mail and have a collection fee included in the purchase price.
  2. Bag & Tag: This method allows any bag type to be used, but tags are purchased through the mail or at local retail stores such as grocers to cover the cost of each container. The container is usually a bag, but could be a can or bin.
  3. Variable Containers: Some systems use different container sizes depending on the needs of the customer. Customers select from various sizes of containers (such as 20, 35, 65 or 100 gallon totes) according to their needs and are billed accordingly.
  4. Smart Cans: Containers have a built-in radio frequency identification (RFID) chip to identify the customer and the weight of trash when scanned.
Are you willing to pay for your right to landfill trash to help encourage reduction and recycling in your neighborhood? Photo: graphics.boston.com

Are you willing to pay for your right to landfill trash if it helps encourage reduction and recycling in your neighborhood? Photo: graphics.boston.com

Nothing is Perfect

If PAYT collection sounds like the perfect solution, keep in mind that it has encountered problems. In London, The Great Bin Revolt campaign lasted two years until the UK government abandoned a PAYT system using “Smart Bins” after local authorities refused to carry out trial runs. Not one council volunteered to take part in the tests of the system—which could have cost families the equivalent of $150 a year. Local authorities feared a backlash from voters and had deep concerns that administering the taxes would prove both expensive and unworkable.

There’s also the idea that in a certain economy, it makes more financial sense to throw things away. In mid-October when the recycling market crashed, the price Eco-Cycle could get for a ton of plastic milk jugs plummeted from $800 a ton to $200 a ton. Plastic raw material made from soda bottles dropped from $400 a ton to $40 a ton. And to get rid of the oddball plastics (numbers 3 through 7), Eco-Cycle now has to pay someone $60 a ton just to haul the stuff away. With no market for recycled goods, they don’t do much better stockpiled in a warehouse instead of buried in a landfill.

PAYT can also inadvertently endorse the idea of illegal diversion, where trash is illegally dumped or burned to avoid the collection fee. This concern often turns out to be more of a perceived barrier than a real issue and there are steps that can be taken to minimize it. Typically, communities report that illegal diversion can be an issue regardless of the way in which residents are charged for solid waste management.

Communities with or without PAYT must deal with waste residents have dumped by roadsides or in undeveloped areas, burned in their backyards or deposited into commercial dumpsters. Arlo Guthrie (Alice’s Restaurant) fans know that illegal diversion occurred prior to implementing PAYT and will probably persist at some level following implementation as well.

Imagine the Possibilities

Of course, absolute zero waste is absolutely unachievable. Some things are always going to end up in the trash: used bandages and other personal care products for example. If you would like for that bandage to be sterile, it will need a wrapper, too. We just need to endeavor to reduce.

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