If you can drag your trash to the curb and it goes away, you don’t really have skin in the game, said Chip Chesley, general services director for the city of Concord, N.H. If you pay by the bag to dispose of waste, you may think more about recycling or donating items.
“It gives people a reason, a pause, to say, ‘Well, there is a price,’” Chesley said of Concord’s Pay As You Throw — or PAYT — solid waste disposal program. “How do I best manage the things I don’t want anymore in the most cost-effective way?”
PAYT programs charge residents for solid waste disposal based on the amount of trash they throw away. The approach, which municipalities have used since the 1980s, provides an incentive for people to remove items from the waste stream, said Brian Patnoe, member services manager with the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA) in Epsom, N.H., the nation’s largest and oldest recycling cooperative. PAYT’s popularity spread in New Hampshire in the early 1990s as communities shifted from operating their own landfills to sending waste to regional facilities, Patnoe said. About 26% of New Hampshire residents now live in a community that uses PAYT for household solid waste disposal.
Patnoe said PAYT can save municipalities money by reducing waste volume and the amount a community pays in tipping fees to dump trash at a landfill. Communities also may earn a little revenue from recyclables.
Less waste conserves landfill space, said Erica Douglas, solid waste manager for the city of Lebanon, N.H. The city operates a PAYT program and municipal landfill serving its residents and people in 22 surrounding communities.
“Because we are a landfill, we realize that we have a very limited resource here,” Douglas said. “Obviously, it’s incredibly important that we’re doing everything that we can to preserve it. So when you have a Pay As You Throw program, it definitely makes people more conscious of what they’re throwing away as opposed to recycling.”
PAYT treats residents more fairly, too, Douglas noted, because they pay for the amount of trash they throw away, not a flat fee.
Patnoe said communities typically use one of five PAYT approaches:
- Town bag: The community sells plastic trash bags that residents must buy and use to dispose of their trash. Revenue from bag sales covers all or a portion of the community’s trash disposal costs.
- Stickers: Residents pay for trash disposal by buying community-issued stickers they place on their own trash bags. Stickers can fall off, though, if trash bags are wet or it’s very cold.
- Tags: They work like stickers but attach more securely to trash bags.
- Punch cards: Residents buy a punch card allowing them to dispose of a certain number of bags of trash. They usually must bring their trash to a waste collection facility where a staff member punches their card for each bag of trash thrown away.
- Overflow: Residents pay for municipal trash disposal services. If they want to discard more than fits in their garbage cart, the person pays a fee for the extra items.
The city of Lebanon launched a PAYT punch card system in the mid-1980s to conserve landfill space. Over the years, the program added communities and now serves 85,000 to 90,000 people, Douglas said. The expansion makes it difficult to determine how PAYT has affected residential solid waste volume, which now ranges from 3,000 to 3,500 tons per month.
Residential customers have paid $2 per punch, which covers one bag of trash of any size. A person throwing out a 15-gallon bag of trash has paid the same as someone tossing out a 30-gallon bag, a weakness in the incentive to reduce waste.
In early August, however, Lebanon will transition to a prepaid PAYT trash bag program for all residents living outside the city of Lebanon, Douglas said. Customers will pay $1 for a 15-gallon bag and $2 for a 30-gallon bag. PAYT bag prices will cover the cost of making each bag and disposing of waste put in it, she said. Lebanon residents can dispose of household waste using PAYT bags or can continue using punch cards for an as-yet undetermined amount of time.
Area retailers will sell Lebanon’s PAYT bags at the city’s price. Residents still must transport their filled PAYT bags to the city Solid Waste Facility or hire a private hauler to pick up their trash, Douglas said.
The PAYT bag program will give Lebanon more-accurate information about waste volume and where it comes from, she noted. Revenue could dip slightly from punch card levels, but the self-supporting solid waste program will face lower expenses because staff can spend less time punching residents’ cards and emptying the residential trash dumpster.
Concord switched to its PAYT system in 2009 after studying the idea for about a year, Chesley said. Prior involvement in a waste-to-energy project had given the city of 44,000 people very favorable waste disposal costs. Going into 2009, though, the city anticipated trash disposal rates would jump to $62 per ton from the previous $46 per ton. City leaders decided to look for better options.
Concord’s PAYT program includes about 12,000 residential properties, Chelsey said. The city, which hires private companies to handle waste pickup and disposal, doesn’t use PAYT for large multifamily dwellings or most businesses.
“Almost instantaneously when we implemented Pay As You Throw, we saw a 40% reduction in our solid waste volumes,” Chesley said. He found no evidence people took their trash to other communities or dumped it illegally. “The other thing we saw was an instantaneous doubling of our recycling volumes,” he added.
Concord keeps costs low for its PAYT trash bags because people will resent a high price. Residents had paid $1.25 per 15-gallon bag and $2.50 per 30-gallon bag. Prices increased July 1 to $1.60 for a 15-gallon bag and $3.20 for a 30-gallon bag.
Residents can buy bags at numerous local retailers, which don’t make any profit from the sales. Concord also offers assistance to people who can’t afford the bags.
City officials planned for PAYT bag sales revenue to cover the cost of residential trash collection and disposal. Disposal prices have soared, however, so the city makes up the shortfall with general fund dollars, Chesley said.
NRRA’s Patnoe recommends allowing 18 months to educate residents and roll out a PAYT program.
Douglas said the city of Lebanon has touted how using PAYT bags will reduce trash volumes and extend the life of the city landfill. The city addressed some residents’ fears that PAYT trash bags will tear easily by purchasing high-quality bags that also are made of 50% to 75% recycled content.
“There’s a lot of good plus sides to what we’re doing, so it’s just really getting that message out to the public as soon as possible,” Douglas said.
Concord officials spoke to residents about the PAYT concept everywhere they could, Chesley said. “Understand there’s going to be questions,” he added. “Understand there’s going to be some pushback. But the important thing is to engage.”
Expect sudden change in people’s waste disposal habits once PAYT begins, Chesley advised. Municipalities also should develop strong partnerships with local retailers that sell PAYT products and keep those stores well stocked.
“None of us like change,” he explained. “Some of us will complain about change. If they go to a store and begrudgingly need to buy a bag and the bag’s not on the shelf, that’s a tough thing. … You need to have your products present on the shelf.” For questions about PAYT, Chesley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.