In almost all of the ‘How They Do Garbage‘ portraits we’ve done so far, everyone has had a relatively similar trash collection system – residents pay a flat rate for trash pick-up, no matter how much they fill their bins. But there is another way.
Over 7000 cities in US implement pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) garbage collection systems. Under PAYT, also known as unit pricing or variable rate pricing, residents are charged based on the amount of garbage they throw away. Usually this means that households can choose between a few garbage can size options, with smaller cans costing less for pick-up than larger ones. Essentially, PAYT systems treat trash collection like a metered utility (often the case with water and electricity) where users are charged based on the amount they use. This creates an incentive to reduce use, or in this case, reduce trash.
There are a number of other benefits to this type of system. Most cities that implement PAYT systems report major savings in landfill tipping fees. As one particularly striking example, San Jose, CA reported an annual savings of $4 million as a result of its PAYT system. Also, there is a certain fairness in the system. When waste management is charged as a flat rate, residents who reduce or recycle more end up subsidizing those who throw away more. In PAYT, reducers are rewarded and bigger throw-awayers have to pay for their higher system use.
We visited Gainesville, Florida – a city that has been touted as a PAYT success story. Faced with the imminent closure of the Alachua County Southwest Landfill, Gainesville launched a PAYT program 1994. Residents have four garbage can size options for their weekly collection, each with its own price tag: a mini-can for $15.25/month, a 35 gallon can for $19.75/month, a 64 gallon can for $24.50/month, and a 96 gallon can for $30.50/month. Meanwhile, recycling service is unlimited.
In the first year of its program the town reported major benefits. Solid waste collected dropped by 18%, resulting in a savings for the city of $186,200. Recyclables recovered increased by 25%. As a result, the Southwest Landfill was able to stay open for 4 additional years, saving the county more money.
But it can’t all be roses, right? Many people wonder whether PAYT leads to a rise in illegal dumping as residents don’t want to pay extra for overflow garbage. The EPA suggests that this is a smaller problem than most anticipate, with only 19% of communities who implement PAYT actually experiencing a rise in illegal dumping.
My thought was that residents would stuff more things into their recycle bins (remember, that’s free) that didn’t necessarily belong there in order to keep their garbage load lower. I couldn’t find much data on this online, so we actually had to try to talk to someone. We went to Gainesville’s recycling center to see what we could find out. When we got there we spoke to a worker who didn’t want his picture taken. He told us that he hadn’t noticed any change, but then, we were asking about a change that had taken place nearly 20 years ago, so that may be hard to track.
Overall I think PAYT systems make a lot of sense. In the case of Houston, residents don’t even know how much it costs to have their garbage hauled away weekly – it’s just wrapped up in the water bill and taken for granted. I think this can lead to a cavalier attitude. PAYT makes us put our money where our mouth is.