It’s a motion we hardly have to think about: The arm swings back, then forward, and the discarded item arcs toward the trash bin. It’s almost as easy as breathing. But what if it cost more the more times we tossed? Would we start thinking twice before throwing something away?
Despite exhortations to live sustainably, despite reuse, recycling and composting programs, Asheville sent 21,858 tons of solid waste to the Buncombe County landfill between June 30, 2014, and July 1, 2015, according to the city’s website.
In 2014, City Council approved a resolution that calls for reducing municipal solid waste by 50 percent by 2035, when the current landfill is projected to be full. Developing a new one will be expensive, and decisions with a long-term impact will have to be made at that point.
To help meet this goal, Asheville is considering implementing a pay-as-you-throw system. Instead of a flat rate for municipal waste pickup, residents would be charged a variable amount based on how much trash they generated. The city hired consultant Lisa Skumatz of the Colorado-based Skumatz Economic Research Associates to evaluate Asheville’s unique situation and recommend the best approach. On Dec. 15, the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee met to hear her report and discuss details of such a system.
The two most common types are bag-based and variable-cart systems. In the first, consumers buy special bags that are then placed curbside for collection. The cost of the bags is what the customer pays for trash pickup. In the second type, consumers choose from various size carts and are billed monthly, depending on the size of the cart.
Each system has its pros and cons. There are more than 8,700 such programs throughout the United States, each one specifically designed to fit the community it serves. Many were implemented to help divert recyclables from the waste stream. A Colorado study found that “PAYT is one of the top three features to which leading states say they attribute their state’s strong recycling performance,” Skumatz wrote in her final report. In her survey, 97 percent of respondents said they used Asheville’s recycling service regularly.
Theoretically, the report notes, a bag-based system would produce a higher recycling rate, but it would cost substantially more, “and the higher recycling rate is not fully substantiated in statistical surveys.” Instead, she recommended a cart-based system, which was found to be cheaper for each each household and easier to implement and explain to customers.
Making it work
“Considering that our recycling rates are relatively robust compared to similar communities, we need to figure out what makes the most sense for Asheville,” says Sonia Marcus, chair of the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and Environment. “The city’s investment to implement a bag-based system is large in comparison with the marginal, improved waste reduction that you get with the variable-cart system.”
But the latter approach would still carry a significant upfront cost for the city, which would have to buy the carts. And what about all the perfectly good carts we already have? With a bag-based system, the Skumatz report notes, residents could continue to use them.
One idea, the report continues, would be to use the old carts for a new curbside collection service for compostable material. But that, too, would be expensive.
“We’d be setting up this whole other system,” says Marcus, “with substantial costs to drive vehicles all over Asheville to pick up people’s organic waste and consolidate it. When, really, the most sustainable solution would be for that waste to stay where it is and decompose naturally on people’s property. A large proportion of property owners and renters in Asheville have access to some kind of outside space where a compost pile could be located.”
But not every city resident does, and even those who do may not have the knowledge or the mindset to participate in composting. Thus, educational outreach would be needed, and perhaps community composting sites. “It would be an interesting service for neighborhood community gardens to serve, or other community agencies, like the property behind a school, a community center or a fire station,” says Marcus.
According to Skumatz’s analysis, pay-as-you-throw systems typically reduce the waste stream by about 16 percent.
But that’s still far short of the 50 percent target Asheville has set, and in a city with a growing population and a booming tourism industry, reaching it will require substantial additional efforts.
Meanwhile, the city is still considering its options. The matter now goes to the Finance Committee, which will attempt to get a clearer idea of the cost and feasibility of implementing such a system.