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Reducing Carbon One Garbage Can at a Time

With a clear cash incentive to reduce garbage, the 'one-can' concept gains ground.

It wasn’t long ago that no one knew what a carbon footprint was. Now a person can’t turn around without bumping into, uhhh, Bigfoot.

Most people and communities first look at energy efficiency as a quick means of reducing their carbon footprint, but pay-as-you-throw (or PAYT) garbage collection may be more efficient, according to consultant Lisa Skumatz, who works in both fields.

The PAYT concept is to pay for garbage to be picked up one bin or bag at a time so that, just like electricity, you are paying for what you use. Instead of being charged a flat rate by a hauler or an addition to home property taxes, the homeowner pays for each bag or bin of garbage set out for collection.

In many programs, recyclables are picked up at no charge. The result is a clear incentive not only to reduce waste through recycling but also to use other methods long touted by recycling advocates — composting, source reduction and reuse.

“Our research shows that if you look at the cost per greenhouse gas emissions reduction from some of the PAYT and recycling programs and compare that to what you get from energy efficiency programs, we find that the recycling and PAYT programs are cheaper per metric ton of carbon emission reduction and easier to implement,” Skumatz said.

That ease comes from an all-out approach. According to Skumatz, “As soon as you implement the program, everyone is covered.”

Skumatz, who has consulted in the solid waste field for 20 years and whose Skumatz Economic Research Associates conducts research and consults with communities on energy and waste management across the country, is not the only one touting these carbon savings.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report that estimated that for each person participating in a PAYT program, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by an average of 0.085 metric ton of carbon equivalent. (By comparison, the EPA estimates a passenger vehicle generates 1.5 metric tons of carbon equivalent a year.)

Communities with PAYT programs are reporting a doubling of recycling collection after implementing their programs, which saves in tipping fees to landfills and provides an increase in recycling revenues. Those benefits are likely to increase as landfill space dwindles and America’s waste commodities are increasingly sought out as raw materials in a global market.

A lack of space for landfills and increasing tipping fees are definitely driving PAYT. New England states have some of the highest tipping fees in the country, but some of the states with the most PAYT programs in place are relatively land-rich. Minnesota, the first state to implement such a program, has gone 100 percent PAYT, as have Washington and Oregon.

Skumatz, along with Jan Canterbury of the EPA Office of Solid Waste, authored a 2006 report on PAYT programs in which they found that more than 7,100 programs are in place, serving about 25 percent of the U.S. population. Currently, PAYT programs are diverting about 17 percent of the residential waste stream, generally a higher rate than any other recycling approach has achieved to date.

The earliest PAYT programs began in the late 1980s, and the concept spread slowly but steadily through the 1990s. Today, Skumatz said, PAYT is taking off. For a growing number of people, the amount of refuse they set out every week has become a badge of honor, with neighbors vying for the lowest waste footprint. Becoming a “one-can” family is a trend in environmental consciousness.

Skumatz found that in Attleboro, Mass., which implemented a PAYT program in 2005, garbage fees decreased by $6 per year the second year the program was in operation, and the average household went from disposing three barrels of trash and one container of recycling to three containers of recycling and one barrel of trash.

In Vancouver, Wash., trash removal dropped enough to allow the city to offer every-other-week collection as an option. A recent Wall Street Journalarticle featured a family of six in New Jersey that has shrunk its weekly garbage to fit in a 30-pound container.

Many people like having a role in determining what they pay for trash removal, Skumatz said, adding that older people remember the scarcities and hardships of World War II and the PAYT concept is “tailor-made” for them.

But the picture isn’t completely rosy.

Resistance to the idea usually results in illegal dumping at the inception of a program; most municipalities report that problems decrease after the programs have been running for a time. Haulers sometimes balk at the way programs are structured, and typically the phone rings off the hook for the first six months of operation of a PAYT program.

Costs of disposal for large low-income families, people on fixed incomes and those living in multi-unit housing can be a problem. Many programs attempt to address these issues in some way. For example, in Dubuque, Iowa, low-income families of five or more, low-income elderly persons and households meeting Section 8 federal assistance guidelines receive a 50 percent discount on their monthly fees.

PAYT programs work in tandem with curbside recycling pickup where it is available but also are being used in small towns where people recycle at drop-off centers and transfer stations. Lyme, N.H., a town of fewer than 2,000 people, implemented a program in 2005 and saw its recycling rate jump from 13.4 percent to 51.9 percent in one year.

Donald Maurer, a spokesperson for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ Solid Waste Technical Assistance Section, said Lyme is one of the latest in a growing number of New Hampshire municipalities (46 total) using a PAYT program.

He works with cities and towns to set up PAYT programs and said there is usually resistance at first.

“It’s a political issue more than anything else,” he said.

Skumatz concurred. “One of the things that we find is the politics of getting a program in place is most difficult,” she said. “Once we get the program in place, every survey shows that 90 percent of the households like the system, like the equity and don’t want to go back to the old program.”

“A lot of people believe that trash is free,” Maurer said. “You put it on the curb; it magically disappears and goes to someplace away.

“People say to me, ‘You’re going to charge me $1.50 a bag to get rid of my garbage?’” Maurer said. “They don’t understand that it’s costing us $70 to $80 a ton” in tipping fees at landfills.

There is a bit of a learning curve for both those instituting the program and those participating. Maurer attributed Lyme’s success to a very basic educational effort. “They taught people what was recyclable. They worked with people when they came to the transfer station. Anybody who came in, they said, ‘We’ll help you to do it.’”

Skumatz agreed that education is key to making the programs work.

For instance, many people don’t understand how much of their trash can be recycled (compared to what was recycled even five years ago) and have never had an incentive to reduce packaging and yard and food waste.

A common PAYT approach is to let homeowners choose what size container they want for their weekly pickup (32 gallons, 64 gallons or 92 gallons, with costs increasing with size and/or weight of the bin); additional refuse can be put in specific bags bought and paid for by the homeowners.

In smaller towns like Lyme, residents buy garbage bags available at the town hall, transfer station or town supermarket that are priced according to size, commonly costing from $1.50 to $9 (programs and rates vary widely). The cost of the bag is what they pay for disposal.

The city of Boulder, Colo., has used a PAYT program since 2001 and currently boasts a rate of more than 50 percent diversion of in its residential waste stream. But when Boulder County recently instituted a PAYT program, the fur flew. Apparently, residents hadn’t tuned into the carrot-and-stick approach.

A three-tier system for containers was offered, and most people in the county chose to use a 96-gallon bin — the largest size offered. Had they opted for the 64-gallon container, their costs for pickup would have remained about the same as they had been, said Gary Horton, president of Western Disposal, the company contracted to remove the waste.

“It’s not draconian,” he said. “If you can get down to 64 gallons, you will be in the range of what it costs you now.”

Skumatz put it another way: “All-you-can-eat buffets do not happen in any real utility service.”

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