How Gloucester, Mass., Switched From Stickers to Bags and Saved a Million Dollars

Some communities that want to move to pay-as-you-throw consider going with stickers or tags instead of bags. At first glance, asking people to affix a sticker or tag on a trash bag of their choice seems like it would work the same way as bag-based pay-as-you-throw: after all, in both cases people are paying a variable rate for their trash that depends on how much they throw away.

But here’s the thing: sticker and tag programs just don’t work nearly as well as pay-as-you-throw bags. They’re difficult to enforce. When people want to cheat the system and throw away more trash with fewer stickers, there are a few tricks they can—and often do—use without easy detection: cutting stickers in half and using them on multiple bags, tagging bigger bags than the ones allowed by the city, and piling untagged bags under bags that do have the proper sticker.

Gloucester harbor

Image courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons license

Which brings us to the city of Gloucester, Mass. Gloucester, a fishing town of about 30,000 on the coast north of Boston that bills itself as “America’s oldest seaport,” had started a sticker-based pay-as-you-throw program in 1990. While the stickers did have some limited success in cutting solid waste, they didn’t fully meet city officials’ expectations. To do more to cut their waste and increase recycling, five years ago this month Gloucester moved from stickers to a pay-as-you-throw program using purple bags (affectionately known around town as “Barney bags,” for their resemblance to a certain children’s television dinosaur). Gloucester’s results with the Barney bags are proof positive of how much more effective bags are than tags.

In the five years since the Barney bags debuted, Gloucester’s solid waste volume has dropped 29% from where it was with the stickers. Let that sink in: bag-based pay-as-you-throw in Gloucester is almost one-third more effective at cutting waste than another form of pay-as-you-throw. What’s more, the city’s recycling rate jumped from 23% with the stickers up to 31%. And maybe best of all, having bag-based pay-as-you-throw has allowed Gloucester to save more than a million dollars in disposal fees that they would have spent over these five years if the stickers were still in place. (They saved $1,013,731 for those of you keeping score).


A third less waste, a big jump in recycling, and a million dollars saved: Gloucester’s experience shows us that when it comes to pay-as-you-throw, stickers just don’t have anything on bags.

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