Decades of recycling haven’t curbed America’s appetite to consume. It’s increasingly difficult to find someone willing to buy the soda cans, old magazines, milk jugs and pickle jars we recycle. Recycling is getting more expensive. And municipalities are shrinking their recycling programs.
“We’re in a wake-up moment,” said Justin Stockdale, western regional director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council. “Recycling is not what we thought it was and that’s opened up an opportunity for more conversations. Communities are more aware of waste in ways that they’ve never been before.”
But communities are not without options. For decades, several cities have attempted to discourage consumption and encourage recycling by charging fees based on the amount of garbage customers put out for pick up. Data suggest such a “pay-as-you-throw” approach has promise.
Yet, it hasn’t been widely embraced, particularly in southwestern Pennsylvania, where only a few municipalities have even considered charging higher fees for having more landfill-destined trash.
Old idea, new urgency
Reducing the amount of garbage the nation generates has taken on a new urgency in the wake of several setbacks for recycling.
About one-quarter of the 4.5 pounds of garbage the average American generates a day is recycled, according to EPA data. But the market for recycled materials is shrinking, the cost of municipal collection is increasing and local recycling programs are growing more limited. Last year, China, the largest buyer of U.S. recycled materials, significantly cut back on what they will now take. And glass has recently been excluded from recycling programs in the City of Pittsburgh and many other local municipalities.
Pay-as-you-throw, a model first tried more than 80 years ago in San Francisco, treats trash like a utility, basing fees on consumption and offering no-cost recycling. Pay-as-you-throw programs divert about 6.5 million tons of municipal solid waste per year that would be piled onto a landfill, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data suggest. Yet, charging a flat fee for garbage pickup, regardless of how much people discard, remains the most popular option.
“You pay for electricity based on how many kilowatt hours you use,” Stockdale said. “You pay for how much gas you use, you pay for water in gallons. Waste is just another utility. Why we don’t pay for it based on the volume of service we consume is a little nuts.”
There are several different types of pay-as-you-throw systems.
In Austin, for example, residents are billed monthly for the garbage they want collected by buying a container in a certain size. Larger containers cost more and if trash exceeds the container, they can put out extra bags of garbage with tags for an additional fee.
Other municipal pay-as-you-throw systems set a maximum number of bags or container size that taxes will cover for collection, with additional bags or containers available for purchase.
Austin began its pay-as-you-throw program as a pilot program in the early 1990s. After the success of the pilot program, the city rolled out new trash carts in variable sizes and started charging variable monthly rates in 1997. The city manages trash, recycling, yard trimming, brush and bulk collection. The initial start-up cost of buying carts for every resident was a significant capital expense, but money was saved through automation.
“We moved from a three-man truck to a one-man truck — an automated truck with an arm on it,” said Richard McHale, assistant director of the Austin Resource Recovery Department. “We were able to save money on labor costs. We didn’t let anyone go. As people retired, we didn’t fill those positions. We also saw cost savings as far as worker’s compensation costs go. We took all that heavy material that people would have to lift by hand and now it’s the truck’s arm that lifts it up.”
Today, the city has four different trash carts available ranging from a 24-gallon trash cart with a monthly rate of $17.90 to a 96-gallon cart at $42.85. Extra bags of trash that don’t fit into a closed trash cart can be placed next to the trash cart and tagged with a sticker, which can be purchased local grocery stores for $4.
Austin’s pay-as-you-throw system has paid off for the city, McHale said. Before Austin implemented pay-as-you-throw, the city diverted about 10 percent of materials from going to the landfill. Today, the city’s diversion rate has soared to about 38 percent. “The city of Austin has grown quite a bit. What we’re throwing away in terms of tonnage of trash is the same as it was 10 years ago. So, we’ve saved a lot on disposal costs in that realm.”
Little local interest
Pay-as-you-throw has failed to catch on in southwestern Pennsylvania. Most municipalities, including the City of Pittsburgh, don’t have the system. Only Cranberry has a version of pay-as-you-throw, but the price difference between a 35-gallon cart and a 96-gallon can is only $2.14 per month — a differential too low to be much of a deterrent, according to Stockdale.
A few other municipalities in the region, such as Mt. Lebanon, have explored pay-as-you-throw programs, but haven’t adopted them. Mt. Lebanon explored using a “bag” system in 2017, in which residents would purchase special bags for their solid waste. The revenue from the sale of those bags would pay for the garbage collection contract. The system wasn’t adopted, at least in part, because the future cost to residents was unclear.
The City of Pittsburgh included pay-as-you-throw as part of the city’s zero-waste strategy in a 2017 report, but have no plans at the moment to implement the system.
“One of the reasons why we raised pay-as-you-throw in our zero waste strategy is it gives you a truer economics of waste,” said Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer, City of Pittsburgh. “But if we were to do that, we’d need a deep policy and economic analysis for the city. We’d have to evaluate if pay-as-you-throw provides a disincentive. Is there a cost-benefit to going from the current system to doing a pay-as-you throw system? What is the amount that you charge? At what point does that change people’s behavior?”
Most municipalities don’t have the same flexibility to set appropriate rates and implement a pay-as-you-throw as Austin, which owns their municipal solid waste system.
“The owners of solid waste infrastructure in the Pittsburgh region are really private companies,” Stockdale said. “In a world where it’s a bid system for contracts with the private sector, it’s more challenging to implement the pay-as-you-throw system. The smallest container would probably be the rate as the previous large container.”
Austin has been somewhat insulated from the recycling crisis in the Northeast and West Coast. They have markets in Mexico that they work with that accept their recycled materials. But the city isn’t immune to the major changes in the industry and has begun to shift their focus away from boundless recycling. “We’ve always preached and put a lot of our resources toward recycling,” said McHale. “But now we need to take the next step and emphasize the reduction of what we’re consuming. We want to decrease the amount we send to landfills even more, and we want to decrease the amount of recycling. We’d prefer that people reduce what they’re buying and not even create any material for us to pick up.”