Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pay As You Throw

Concord has in the last month implemented a new municipal trash collection program: pay as you throw. It's pretty straightforward: you purchase these purple trash bags from local stores, which are picked up curbside as usual. Other trash bags and open containers of trash will not be collected. The bags cost about $1 for a 15-gal, and $2 for a 30-gal, and are bought in packs of five. Yes, that's a costly piece of plastic, but it buys you trash disposal. It works, in other words, much like a postage stamp: the purple bags have built into them a fee for a service. Previously, trash collection and disposal had been paid for through municipal taxes (or, for things like apartment buildings businesses, private contractors). According to the Concord Monitor, the average cost of trash collection and disposal for the single-family home was $195, of which $106 was paid through property taxes; the rest was subsidized through business taxes.

In conjunction with this purple bag rollout, the city has upped their co-mingled recycling pickup, which is free, from bi-weekly to weekly. They'll take most anything of any recycleable value, which means that there's actually a lot that needs to get thrown out. Hilary and I barely half-fill one 15-gal bag per week, while our blue recylcing bin is full to the brim. We eagerly greated the weekly recycling collection, as we'd easily overflowed our recycling bin with bi-weekly collections.

So far, it seems to have been a success. And yet, from reading op-eds in the local paper, you'd think that we were being subjected to eco-facism. Being New Hampshire, many thought this a drastic over-reach by the local government (will the trash-cops be handing out fines)? Some bellyached about the hardship of refraining from automatically throwing everything into the trash. One major downtown supermarket refused to stock the bags, because they cannot make any profit on them. Others wondered if they would next start charging for the air we breathe (impossible), the waste we flush (they already do), or the water we drink (they already do). One person complained about the economic hardship it places on his family: five 30-gallon trash bags a week! One argued that this is little more than an unfair regressive tax that burdens families with children and the poor (a debatable point). Yet another voiced about the only valid concern I've heard: that people will illegally dump their trash in surrounding communities.

Hilary and I have no problem with this program - we actually look favorably on it. It boils down to a simple matter of economics: if you want to discourage one type of behavior (throwing everything away pell mell), make it more expensive. If you want to encourage another type of behavior (increased recycling), make it free, convenient, and easy. Even were the bags to cost the same or less than ordinary trash bags, the simple fact that you need to put some thought into it raises one's consciousness about what, and how much, one is throws away. The city instituted this program largely because the cost of municipal trash collection and disposal was rising faster than tax revenues could support. Instead of a broad tax, which treated wasters and recyclers equally, and is thoroughly invisible to the end-user, this system is fee-based: pay as you throw. The more you throw out, the more you are required to chip in. Even better than that, you'll know that you are paying more for throwing out more; you see the full cost, and are thereby encouraged to change your behavior.


Clara said...

This sounds like a pretty good setup.

Kate said...

Something similar was in place when I lived in Ithaca, and it worked great! The political stuff will give way over time...

Anonymous said...

I actually do the same thing voluntarily to save money. I see no reason to pay for a weekly pickup of a trash can that takes me a month to fill when I can just pay for the trash I generate. I even split the service with a neighbor since they charge a small monthly service fee - living in the corn fields means more driving to check for the bags. As for your version, I'd much rather pay for a service I use than subsidize other people's wastefulness.