Right now in New York City, residents can set out as many trash bags for collection as they want each week. Ditto for recycling (though recycling should go in a marked bin or a clear bag, while trash should be in an opaque bag or in a cart).
It's a service that residents don't pay any extra for. And it's a service that could change.
New York's Department of Sanitation (DSNY) recently awarded a $1 million contract to Resource Recycling Systems for a study and potential implementation of a "save-as-you-throw" system in the city.
At this point in the process, DSNY staff tell Waste Dive it's too soon to discuss any specifics of the study, or any specifics of what a new system could look like. The goal of the program is to "create an incentive for households to recycle residential waste and organics by providing a benefit, like a rebate or tax-based credit, for the amount of materials recycled by a household," according to DSNY Director of Communications Belinda Mager.
She said this process could also include introducing a fee for specific bags, or bag tags, that would be required for household waste to be collected.
That meets the standard description of a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program. Residents get free recycling (and organics, in many cases) pickup, and they pay for each bag of waste they want collected.
In Concord, NH, for instance, PAYT has been a success. Adam Clark, a public works division manager in Concord, told Waste Dive the town implemented PAYT to meet a budget need. Money from Concord's general fund going into the solid waste fund would have had to increase to $2.9 million. "[Pay-as-you-throw] is what they looked at to combat that," Clark said.
The town experienced a few isolated incidents of illegal dumping, but officials were able to pre-plan with the police department. Most illegal dumping now seen, Clark said, is bulk waste, not everyday trash. People occasionally "grumble" about the bags that must be purchased, but most in the community are on board.
And the program quickly showed results. Month over month, the amount of trash went down 40% after the program was implemented — and it's driven cost savings for the local government.
"That's a combination of things," Clark said. "That's the revenue generated from the sale of the bags plus the decreased tonnage, plus some ghost tonnage that just disappeared."
According to case studies, other cities and towns in the Northeast have seen similar success. Waterville, ME saved over $78,000 in the first six months of its PAYT program and saw trash volume decrease by 53%. Needham, MA saw its annual trash tonnage drop from around 14,000 to around 8,000 tons.
And Worcester, MA (where PAYT has been in place for decades) has saved over $10 million in disposal costs, added 200,000 tons of recycling and diverted over 400,000 tons of waste.
Of course, cities with a lot of multi-unit buildings (like New York City, for example) could find it harder to implement, since trash is not collected by individual unit in most cases. "There's not that direct-to-consumer," Clark said, "It's filtered through the management company or whomever. I much prefer the bag, because it's direct to the user."
Waste Dive spoke with Mark Dancy, president of the consulting group Waste Zero, to gain further insight into how pay-as-you-throw works and how city officials can implement programs. Waste Zero has helped many towns, including Concord, Waterville and Worcester implement PAYT programs.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WASTE DIVE: Where do you see pay-as-you-throw developing? How is it 'trending' nationwide?
MARK DANCY: I think it's trending in the right direction, in terms of growth. I think it's a little bit more regional still, than national. Specifically, I think areas like the Northeast still continue to grow for a variety of reasons. Interestingly, one of the areas that looks to be a hotbed of growth, and we started programs last year, was down in Puerto Rico. But there are still some sections of the country that are slower to adopt, and we don't see as much activity in.
We are seeing more interest from cities and towns in New York. We expect that to continue to grow as year-after-year, the state's limits on taxation squeeze budgets more. They're either going to have to be more efficient with their costs, or else they're going to have to find more fees.
Is there anything specific that spurred the growth?
DANCY: I think there was a moment of extended interest after the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, specifically because people who understand the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, and what the change in solid waste pay-as-you-throw brings.
It is literally the number one thing your town can do, in terms of GHG. You can talk about adding bike paths, you can talk about natural gas vehicles, and you can implement those things, and some of them feel good, and some of them have a fairly high cost, but none of them have the impact that reducing your trash by 40% has. Not even close.
I think people who are serious about greenhouse gas emissions should look as PAYT. Obviously it always comes back to the political challenge of asking people to participate in a change. Then you find out how serious people are.
So what are the most difficult parts of that 'political challenge'? How do you best begin to implement a PAYT program, or even talking about it?
DANCY: I would say the biggest challenge is getting the political folks to understand that it's not going to be as bad for them as they think. It's getting them to overcome their fear.
The facts are on the side of PAYT. It's something people really can change at the local level. But it's also something that politicians can say, 'wait I just saw eight nasty blog posts, residents don't necessarily understand what we're talking about.'
It's really about getting politicians to overcome the fear of change themselves.
Sure, but what about at the residential level? How do you respond to homeowner complaints that they're already paying for garbage collection through taxes?
DANCY: We think it's a challenge, but our philosophy on it is, the person who's actually generating the trash, recycling, compost, all those things, has to be involved in the process.
I just don't believe that you can ... just throw material in a bin, and have the egg be unscrambled by some type of technology. That would be great. I've heard about it for 25 years. I've personally seen 12 'dirty MRFs' open and 12 'dirty MRFs' close. It's a nice idea, but, the more the resident is involved, and understands, and has a stake in it, the more likely you are to get a waste stream that's efficient for your town.
I'd like to say I was smart enough to invent all this. All it is, is behavioral economics and utility pricing. People in different parts of the country tend to react the same to pricing pressure.