I heard the trucks early Thursday morning and realized belatedly that we had forgotten to put the trash and recycling bins out the previous night. Later, concerned that we would have overflowing bins as we waited until the following week for pick-up, I peered into the bins and realized that, in fact, my recycling bin was half full, but my trash can was almost empty. It occurred to me then that if we were paying for trash services the way that we pay for electricity, water, and natural gas, i.e. paying for what we use, we would be saving a lot of money with our household’s judicious use of the trash can.
The pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) concept is not new. A 2002 report, Municipal Experience with Pay as You Throw Policies: Findings from a National Survey, found that cities that implemented PAYT programs on average realized a 44% decrease in waste generation and a 75-100% increase in recycling. According to a June, 2016, Coalition for Resource Recovery article, PAYT is in approximately 7,000 municipalities in the United States.
PAYT programs vary in how they keep the measurement of solid waste from becoming a logistical nightmare. In proportional pricing, residents are charged per-unit amount, i.e. per bag within a trash receptacle. Variable-rate pricing charges the residents based on the size of their chosen container, regardless of the number of bags inside for any given pick-up. Multi-tiered pricing starts with a flat-fee for base-level service, and then additional fees are added depending on the amount of waste thrown away. For more details on these pricing systems go to https://archive.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/tools/payt/web/html/top13.html
The EPA offers three reasons to support PAYT:
Environmental Sustainability: The increase in recycling and decrease in trash generation leads to fewer natural resources being extracted and fewer greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal of products.
Economic Sustainability: Residents can take control of their trash bills, waste haulers can lower their tipping fees, and the program may actually generate revenue to cover solid waste costs.
Equity: One of the most important advantages of having a PAYT program for solid waste is that it is fair: the more you recycle and compost—and help the environment—the less you pay.
So, why hasn’t Fairfax County jumped on the PAYT bandwagon?
Right now, the cost of solid waste management is usually not noticed as part of the property tax bill, in the case of the 44,000 households in Fairfax County that have county hauling. The inflated cost private haulers charge to account for full trash cans in the rest of the county is also often not recognized. PAYT would draw attention to these costs. Also, the changeover needed to either track the number of bags or issue new containers of variable size is often cited as too expensive.
Without a citizen demand for change, there is no incentive for haulers to move to a PAYT structure. It is therefore up to us to continue to recycle and compost as much as possible without an expectation of monetary savings, but rather with the knowledge that we are supporting environmental stewardship and sustainability.