Not All Pay-As-You-Throw Is Created Equal

The news this week that the city of Bloomington, Ill., is moving to a garbage payment model known as “variable-rate carts” has gotten us thinking again about how, in terms of waste reduction, not all pay-as-you-throw is created equal.

The system that Bloomington plans to adopt, like other variable-rate cart programs, will offer residents three different sizes of trash cans that each come with a different monthly fee. (In Bloomington, households can pay $16 a month for a 35-gallon cart, $18 a month for a 65-gallon cart, or $20 a month for a 95-gallon cart. Prices for the two larger sizes will rise by several dollars over the next few years.) The idea is to make people aware of the cost of their trash and accountable for the amount of it that they create—and in the process, throw away less and recycle more.

So far, so good. (Who doesn’t like less trash and more recycling?) But just how well does the variable-rate cart system do what it sets out to do?

For starters, variable-rate carts don’t offer much of an incentive to reduce waste. If anything, they reinforce—and lock in—people’s existing disposal patterns. People who make a lot of trash are more likely to sign up for a bigger bin—and then continue to make a lot of trash. Conversely, people who don’t create much waste may sign up for the smallest bin, but once they do that, there’s no benefit to them for going below 35 gallons of trash.

Another problem is stuffing. Lots of people sign up for the smallest cart in an attempt to save money, and then cram as much trash as possible into it. Not only does this create unsightly “snow-coning”—carts stuffed over the top with trash, like a snow cone sitting on top of its cup—but it can also lead to trash blowing out of the carts and into streets, gutters, and storm drains.

And variable-rate carts are expensive, logistically complicated, and time-consuming from the city’s perspective. For a variable-rate cart program to be effective, a city needs to purchase (or lease), distribute, track, and maintain its fleet of carts. Doing all of this is an expense that must first be deducted from any potential revenue the program brings in.

So variable-rate carts don’t typically reduce trash volume, they can leave litter in the street, and they’re expensive to run. That’s just the opposite of bag-based pay-as-you throw, which cuts trash by nearly half, keeps the streets clean, and actually saves money for towns and cities.

For reliable waste reduction and financial savings, bag-based pay-as-you-throw programs are still the most effective option around.

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