In 2009 residents tossed 14,722 tons of garbage into a landfill in Concord, New Hampshire. The next year they dumped just 8,311 tons.
As Concord slashed its trash by 44 percent, the community doubled its recycling.
“The positive effects were so immediate,” said Concord administration division manager Adam Clark.
Clark oversees the city’s pay-as-you-throw program, which slashed the trash after it started in 2009.
The program requires residents to buy specific purple trash bags from local stores for waste haulers to pick up — the bigger the bag, the higher the price. Trash haulers in the area will only pick up those purple bags.
“Pay as you throw” for residences is listed as a short-term strategy in Teton County’s “Road to Zero Waste” plan, which aims to steer the community toward diverting 60 percent of its waste from the landfill by the year 2030. Right now Teton County is diverting about 34 percent of waste.
Residents of Teton County and the town of Jackson pay the same amount for trash pickup, regardless of the volume of garbage they’re throwing away, so there’s no financial incentive to recycle, said Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling Supervisor Heather Overholser.
“What pay-as-you-throw does is it treats waste collection as a utility, the same way you would treat electricity or gas service,” Overholser said. “Basically, you pay for the amount of service that you use.”
Concord’s results are not unique. A November 2018 study released by the University of New Hampshire found that towns in that state with pay-as-you-throw programs saw a substantial reduction in volumes of trash disposal.
Of 180 towns in the study, the 34 that used pay-as-you-throw saw waste disposal rates drop between 42 and 54 percent, the study found.
Another report that focused on communities in Maine showed pay-as-you-throw cities generated about 44 percent less trash per capita than communities without the program.
Economist Lisa Skumatz has worked on pay-as-you-throw initiatives since 1987. She said consumers need a “price signal” to incentivize recycling and waste reduction: A fixed bill for unlimited trash collection leads to overuse.
“If you didn’t have to pay anything extra for more electricity you use you would probably keep your house warmer,” Skumatz said.
Most pay-as-you-throw programs require consumers to pay for varying sizes of trash bags or trash bins, and haulers accept only garbage that’s in the approved receptacles.
For example, Loveland, Colorado’s program offers four sizes of residential garbage bins. Nine percent of customers use the 17-gallon bins, 41 percent use the 35-gallon bins, 35 percent use the 65-gallon bins and 15 percent use the 95-gallon ones, according to Tyler Bandemer, the city’s superintendent for solid waste.
The price for the smallest size starts at $3.25 a month, with prices doubling as the size increases up to $19.50 a month for the largest bin.
Skumatz said a “trivial difference” in price isn’t enough incentive to drive people toward recycling. The sweet spot is around an 80 percent price differential.
How it could work here
Overholser said the vision for such a program here would require the Jackson Town Council to create an ordinance mandating that haulers charge varying prices for trash pickup, though the haulers could create their own pricing structures.
“If they’re creative with it, they could potentially increase revenue or it could remain the same,” she said.
“It just divides up the cost of the weight in that truck proportionately so the people who are generating less waste are paying less and the people who are generating more waste are paying more.”
It’s unclear how the program could extend to unincorporated Teton County, which doesn’t have ordinances.
A key to making pay-as-you-throw effective, experts say, is making recycling easier in tandem with charging for waste. Currently Teton County asks recyclers to sort material at a drop-off site.
Overholser said the program would ideally be rolled out in tandem with a way to make recycling easier, like mingled recycling containers that don’t need to be as thoroughly sorted.
Another challenge could be dovetailing a pay-as-you-throw program with requirements for Teton County’s unique need for bear-proof trash containers. Skumatz said that’s doable. A carefully coordinated effort is needed, Overholser said.
When pay-as-you-throw is introduced communities often see public resistance. Residents fret over the specter of rampant illegal dumping, but
Clark said it was never a problem in Concord. Skumatz said some residents begin to believe it’s a right to have everything taken away.
Keith Nyhan, a Concord town councilor who approved the program in 2009, called it a tremendous success and said a key is educating the public ahead of time to minimize outcry.
“We really took it upon ourselves to educate the community why it’s beneficial,” he said, like emphasizing environmental impact, individual responsibility and the capacity to save money for reducing waste.
Convincing haulers to get on board can pose another challenge, Skumatz said.
“They have to invest in containers in some places; they have to have a more complicated billing system,” Skumatz said.
Jenalee Schupman, an owner of Teton Trash Removal, said she’s on board with the county’s zero waste goals but has concerns about how a pay-as-you-throw program would be rolled out.
“I wonder if a lot of people would rather just not even bother with trying to figure out what size can they need and just take it to the dump themselves,” Schupman said.
She said the town and county would need to provide haulers with support in making the adjustment.
“I think the pay-as-you-throw would definitely have some kinks that would need to be worked out,” she said.
Skumatz said that in her research such programs cut landfill waste an average of 20 percent through incentivizing waste reduction, composting and recycling.
“It is the single most effective and cost-effective way to increase recycling in a community,” she said.