Pay-As-You-Throw Increases Recycling; Reduces Waste and Costs

By Trish Thiel

Thousands of communities have found that getting people to reduce their waste and increase their recycling efforts can be done in pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs.

PAYT programs are also known as variable-rate pricing or unit pricing programs for waste collection. Residents are charged for the collection of municipal solid waste— ordinary household trash— based on the amount they throw away. The traditional system is to pay a fixed flat rate, whether through municipal taxes, a waste bill, or through a private hauler.

Recycling is a way of life in Forest, Ohio. After putting a pay-as-you-throw program in place, community recycling rates increased over 300 percent.

- Photo Courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Jan Canterbury, environmental scientist, Municipal Waste Program, United States Environmental Protection Agency, said the programs fall under the EPA Climate Change Outreach Program.

"While we mostly work with fortune 500 companies, studies have shown that communities switching to a PAYT program can reduce their greenhouse emissions by increasing composting and recycling. This energy benefit is how it fits into the climate control program," Ms. Canterbury said.

1998 EPA studies reported that over 5,000 communities, both large and small, are using PAYT programs. Other independent reports (as late as 1999) show that number now to be over 6,000.

"When it comes to programs, what works best is combining the three E's- economics, equity and the environment. The power of the market place is what really pushes this program. That's what motivates people to modify their behavior," she said.

The economics aspect of this is that municipalities need a cost-effective way to deal with garbage and to reduce the amount of garbage collected. With PAYT programs, municipalities need to determine how much revenue is needed to cover the costs of the waste removal and recycling, set rates accordingly, then the program really takes care of itself, Ms. Canterbury explained.

Equity comes in with the fact that people are paying only for the amount of garbage they throw away. People who recycle more and throw away less like this aspect of it. Also those who have smaller households and create less trash in general appreciate the PAYT systems.

Generating less trash and recycling more brings the environment in to the "three E" picture. The PAYT programs usually include paying for your garbage by container or by a tag system, and unlimited recycling for a low fee or for free. The ability to save money on the waste bill encourages people to recycle.

Ms. Canterbury said, "With recycling you will always have a certain percentage of people who will recycle without incentives. You will always have a certain percentage of people who will never recycle. Those people in between you can reach by attaching another motivation, such as money. People recycle when they know they will save some money and then they find out that recycling is not so bad."

Rich McConaghy, solid waste manager for the city of Vancouver, Washington, agrees. Vancouver has had a PAYT system in place for many years for residential collection service. The system was brought in gradually. Residents had always been charged a set fee for unlimited garbage, but in the mid-1980s a volume-based system was put into place along with a newspaper recycling program.

In the mid-1990s, the program used a linear rate program, where a second can costs as much as the first can. Current rates for a 32-gallon can to be picked up weekly are $11.97 per month plus a $2.63 per month recycling charge. Additional cans cost $11.97 each. Residents can recycle as much as they want for the $2.63 per month.

An annexation in the late 1990s brought in 20,000 new households that had not been on a PAYT system before. This brought Vancouver's population up to 135,000 with 35,000 single resident households.

"We had a few disgruntled people when the annexation first occurred," said Mr. McConaghy. "Before annexation their costs had been something like $10 for the first can and $2 for the second can. Eighty percent of the cost is getting to the residence so haulers charge accordingly for additional cans. People had to adjust and many quickly adapted to a one can service. For people who had two cans, their bills went up from $12 a month to about $20. When we explained the system to them, all of a sudden it didn't make sense for a lot of them to have two cans. The pocketbook told them where to go and they came around to our system."

Vancouver has always contracted private haulers to pick up garbage. Currently two companies have won bids and are serving the city through 2006.

Mr. McConaghy said, "We have an ordinance that covers everything for trash pick up and that is mirrored in the contracts for our haulers. There are performance expectations they have to meet.

"The revenue is detailed and we have set fees. The city council sets rates annually. Most of the time they are able to set rates for a two-year period. We control the rates and there are no longer any surprises in the bills," he continued.

Ft. Collins, Colorado is another city with about 100,000 residents that uses private haulers to handle the trash and recycling collection in its PAYT program.

In the early 1990s, Fort Collins made a change to require trash haulers to be licensed and offer curbside recycling. The trash haulers could charge for the recycling pick up.

Susie Gordon, environmental program manager, City of Fort Collins Natural Resources Department, said, "Many of our residents felt they could save a few bucks and recycle at drop off centers that many of the grocery stores offered. To increase the recycling, a task force was set up to come up with more effective ways to handle this. The suggestions that were implemented included a PAYT program that bundled the cost of recycling into it so that recycling collection became 'free.'"

The ordinance for this was set at the end of 1995 and it began in 1996. The city also set a linear rate program where the second can cost as much as the first, but recycling was unlimited and free for residential collection customers.

Ms. Gordon said, "We had a great deal of confusion the first three months. The trash haulers raised their rates and told customers the city was making them raise rates. It took several months to straighten it out and explain to people they could use one can and recycle."

There are six trash haulers in Fort Collins and each now has its own district. Before the ordinance was set, all the haulers could have customers anywhere in the city.

"In any given day you could have all six companies coming through your neighborhood. It was hard on the streets. The ordinance gave each hauler a district and they are required to pick up trash and recyclables on the same day," Ms. Gordon explained.

Each company bills a little differently. The average cost for a 35-gallon container or bag is $1 to $1.35 per week. Ms. Gordon said that most companies require that a customer pre-pay for three months of service. When people move into a neighborhood and order trash service, the company helps them determine if they are a one-can per week or two-can per week household and so on. If you have extra trash at some point it is added into the next billing cycle.

"Most of our companies offer a 'premium' service, which is a 90-gallon polycart that holds three times the amount of trash one average container does. Many households that don't want to be bothered with recycling buy these," Ms. Gordon added. "Some companies offer rolls of bags people can buy instead of being billed. This is a real economizer. The bags average about $1 each. I buy these and I usually only have a bag of trash to put out every other week."

Ms. Canterbury said, "When PAYT programs first started to take off in the 1990s, we received feedback from private haulers who didn't like it. But they soon realized they can make money this way too. Everyone has to be more cost efficient. The private haulers adapted to it.

"In fact some haulers promote it and found they can make money going after the households that have a low volume generation and offering some sort of PAYT billing scale. This is successful, especially if the other area haulers don't offer it. They have a competitive edge that way," she added.

Some cities handle the garbage collection themselves.

The Village of Forest, Ohio has a population of 1,488. The village implemented a PAYT program when it was looking at a rate increase for garbage collection back in 1998. A meeting of local area governments at the time also wanted municipalities to find ways to reduce waste and recycle more.

Village Administrator Charles Drunkhart said, "We started a recycling program for the city before the PAYT program. A trailer would be brought in once a month for recycling. The need grew for the trailer to be here every other week and then every week. When we asked the service to leave a trailer here, they said there were not any available to leave.

"Looking to get more people recycling and less going to landfills we received a grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to purchase a recycling trailer. It went well, but eventually we reached a peak on voluntary recycling."

To implement its PAYT program, Forest set a rate of $11.50 each month. Residents are allowed two 30-gallon containers each week for that rate. If there is a week where a resident has more garbage, the city has tags available for $1 each. Each tag is equal to one bag or 50 pounds of garbage. To throw away large items such as furniture, residents need tags that are equal to the amount of weight.

"We thought people would be buying a lot of stickers, but it didn't turn out that way. The first time we put the program into use, if someone had something that couldn't be put in the trash, it was tagged with an explanation of why. We came by the next day and took those items. The second week, only about 25 percent of those who put out improper items the week before did so again. That week we tagged the items, but didn't come back and pick it up. People learned very quickly," Mr. Drunkhart explained.

"Some people were unhappy at first because they thought we were telling them they couldn't throw out more garbage and some people didn't want to recycle. We explained to them that they could throw out as much as they wanted, they would just be paying for it by buying tags. It calmed those people down," he added.

Forest businesses are subjected to the same rules as the residents. "We limited the size of the dumpsters and we have steep rates for businesses that don't recycle," he added.

Recycling in Forest is done at a drop-off center in a central area of town. The center is not manned and Mr. Drunkhart said that manning it has not been necessary. There has not been much contamination.

Having the municipal trash collection, Mr. Drunkhart said that they probably do have more control over the situation than if private haulers came in, but he added he believed a private hauler would do a good job too. He also indicated that it would be more economical for a private hauler than for Forest to do the collection.

"The city-owned trucks are expensive, especially since we only collect trash 2.5 days a week. It would be more cost effective for a company that has trucks on the road five days a week to do this. They could bring in their own trailer and haul away the recyclables, also. Other communities have had success doing it this way," he said.

The city of Lynchburg, Virginia has municipal collection of its trash for its 60,000 residents and its small businesses.

David Owen, director of solid waste for the city of Lynchburg said the PAYT program has been in existence since 1993. It was started at the same time the city was closing one landfill and opening a new one.

"We went to the PAYT program to cover the cost of refuse collection and recycling drop-off areas and for the administration costs for the curbside pickup. Other costs associated with solid waste collection are covered by taxes," he explained.

The city went to a tag and decal program for residents and small businesses. One tag costs $.45 for a 13-gallon can or bag and $.95 for a 32-gallon can or bag. A $40 decal allows one can of garbage per week.

"When we started the program some people were upset because they had never paid for refuse collection. It had always been in the taxes that businesses paid and now they were having to pay for what they throw away," Mr. Owen explained.

"People can throw away whatever they want as long as it is tagged appropriately. A majority of the residents have greatly reduced their garbage."

Increasing Recycling

Ms. Canterbury said that PAYT programs reduce solid waste costs for communities, reduces the amount of waste, and increases the amount of recycling.

"All our research studies show significant waste reduction and recycling increases. A study we did with Duke University found that the average community decreased its waste anywhere from 14-27 percent and increased recycling by 32-59 percent," she said.

"PAYT programs help cities in states where recycling rates increase and waste reduction goals have been set. Many states now require that this be in the solid waste plan and PAYT programs are often recommended as a way to help with this," she continued.

Mr. McConaghy said that in the 1990s, Washington State required that solid waste plans be updated and include comprehensive mandatory recycling. He said that since Vancouver disposes of its trash in Oregon, the city also had to meet the recycling requirements of that state. "Both states have pretty aggressive recycling mandates. Each has a little different emphasis," he said.

About a year ago the city did a study of 700 families to determine the average waste per customer. They found that the average family was 2.3 persons and had 100 pounds of garbage per month and 56 pounds of recyclables. The residents have a 49 percent diversion rate.

"We found that our one can households have a 50 percent diversion rate of yardwaste and recyclables; two cans, 32 percent; mini-can (20-gallon container) 62 percent, and our mini-can every other week customers, 70 percent."

Mr. McConaghy said, "We believe, community wide, our recycling rate is 40 to 50 percent. We count different types of recycling than just residential into our figures for the community. It's difficult to follow the rate. Our Safeway Supermarkets take all their cardboard back to their distribution center in Oregon. Things like that make it difficult to get an exact count," he added.

Ms. Gordon said, "To follow the recycling and waste rates it is important for a city to do a baseline study on the citizens before starting the program. We didn't do that. We have started collecting information from the trash haulers.

"The overall picture," she continued, "is that the amount of trash is going down and there is a high rate of recycling participation. Each year we experience a three to four percent growth in our population and we are not seeing an excessive growth in trash that you would expect."

Handling the waste collection internally, Mr. Drunkhart said Forest had a significant decrease in waste and increase in recycling just in the first month.

"Recycling is a success because people do not want to spend money to buy more bags," he said. In just a matter of the first month, recycling increased 350 percent. We were just blown away and we didn't have enough space. Luckily we had a grain storage building available for the overflow. We had twice the amount we had had just three weeks earlier. It stabilized within a month and has been at that rate ever since, Mr. Drunkhart said.

"We have found that 35 to 40 percent of our waste is newspaper and cardboard. We thought if we could just take that out of the waste stream we would reduce what's going to the landfill by 25-30 percent. We now have a truck beside the recycling trailer to handle newspaper and cardboard," he said.

In an average month Forest residents and those in the surrounding unincorporated area recycle 20,000 pounds a month. In its February report for recycling (which included the Christmas season), residents recycled 237 pounds of aluminum, 3,100 pounds of glass, 9,245 pounds of newspaper, 1,403 pounds of plastic, 962 pounds of steel food containers, 80 pounds of office paper, 8,000 pounds of cardboard and 8,200 pounds of chipboard.

Mr. Owens said Lynchburg experienced similar results when they started PAYT.

"Our recycling went up almost 300 percent," he said. "Once we started pay-as-you-throw, residential refuse collection went from 20,000 tons per year to 12,500 tons per year. We now average just over 12,000 tons per year. Our recycling went from 1,300 tons per year to 3,200 tons per year. We had a bit of contamination from time to time, but overall PAYT has gone very well."

Education/Information Key to Success

Ms. Canterbury said, "PAYT programs work whether collection is done by the municipality or a private hauler. The programs are flexible and can be made to fit any community, small or large. Very few do not work. If a PAYT program didn't work or didn't get off the ground, it is usually due to one of two reasons. The community didn't do a good job educating the public or the elected officials felt it was something that was not appropriate for the community at that time. Once a program is up and running, it is usually successful."

She said, "As with any program in the beginning, people will be resistant to change. Promotion of the program helps. We've found that once you get the program up and running, people don't want to change back and they can't imagine doing it the other way again."

Ms. Gordon said, "It is important to keep recycling vital, interesting and convenient. I think after 10 or 20 years people can become a little apathetic about recycling. It's important to keep awareness up. New people coming into the community need to be educated as well."

Mr. Drunkhart said that recycling awareness in the community has definitely improved. A lot of it actually takes place in the schools. He added that everyone feared that there would be dumping and the community would get dirtier.

"Just the opposite has happened. Residents get two bags a week for their fee. Many pick up trash to throw away to have enough material to fill those two bags. Places that used to be dirty are now cleaned up," he explained.

Mr. Owen said that when the PAYT program started, the city put out brochures and talked to neighborhood, church and civic groups about the program. There is an ongoing media campaign with television, radio and newspaper ads.

"We still have a few people who resist the system. We have to take legal action when that happens. When we set up the PAYT program, we enacted a local ordinance which gives people two or three chances to make mistakes. After that, they are charged with a misdemeanor. We have taken a few to court and the judges usually order them to pay what is owed to us, plus court costs."

Ms. Canterbury said PAYT programs are very flexible and are not static. Many add options as they go along.

"San Jose, California, a city of about 850,000 has an incredibly successful program. They are now adding construction waste to it. Seattle, Washington offers a micro-can, which is 12 gallons. It's very popular, especially with the older people. People like to have options that reduce their costs," she explained.

"I speak at a lot of conferences here in the United States about PAYT. Many times I'll talk to audience members afterwards and find out they are from communities that have PAYT and they can't believe everyone isn't doing it this way," she added.

The US EPA Office of Solid Waste has a web page with information on PAYT including articles, success stories, contacts, links, a newsletter and more. Visit