Think before you toss: Asheville considers pay-as-you-throw trash collection

Buncombe County Landfill. Photo by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt Photo by Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt

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.

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17 thoughts on “Think before you toss: Asheville considers pay-as-you-throw trash collection

  1. shultz

    If people have to pay per pound or whatever, expect more garbage tossed over hillsides and wherever else it can be dumped. It’s already bad enough they make proper disposal of hazardous waste so cumbersome…this is a step in the wrong direction.

  2. William

    I agree with previous comment – waste will be tossed where we don’t want it. We already pay more if we use the green trash bins.
    Ultimately, if you want to cut down on waste – you have to cut down on people. No matter what efforts are employed the population growth over the next 20 years will assuredly create a higher level of trash.

    • Kudos William. the city should fund contraception to reduce trash. but the rich produce more trash than the poor so the current fees are regressive, so the previous post that William likes is wrong. Littering is a crime and should remain one, but trash fees should be progressive.

  3. NuttyEnvironmentalists

    And anyone with a garbage bin in an apartment complex will get unwanted trash from trespassers. Oh, wait, that already happens.

  4. sneaky

    This is definitely setting us up for dumping problems. The neighborhood I live in in Woodfin has a remote-ish area where people love to drop old couches, bags of crap, and broken furniture down a steep hill into the woods. The nature of the landscape is that it is easy to drive up, dump stuff, and leave without anyone seeing you. Sadly, I have to drive by this multiple times a day on the way to/from home.

  5. Nas

    My problem with these measures is their tendency is to always put extra load on the residents. The city of Asheville receives subsidies and tax money, and one of their jobs is to reduce waste and care for the environment.
    Most residents (especially in Asheville) are happy sorting their trash into 2, 3 or even 5 bins, but not all can afford or want to pay more for something they already pay taxes for. One wonders where tax money goes sometimes.
    So I’m afraid “high upfront costs” translate into “high perpetual bills”, or another way to milk residents.
    I’m all for recycling and composting (I have a compost pile in my backyard), I don’t mind dividing my trash into landfill/plastic/metal/paper/compost, but don’t tell me to pay more. $50-$100/month are more than enough for picking bags 4 times/month, especially when I pay taxes on top of that. That would just sound too much like a rip-off.

  6. James

    Oh please, what’s next from these out-of-touch, sustainability whackos? Will they make a proposal that all citizens of Asheville and Buncombe County should start urinating and crapping in city-designated composts in order to save water? Don’t think such an idea is far-fetched – these are the people who have gotten their way with “water saving” toilets you have to flush 3-4 times to do what they’re supposed to do in the first place. The other posters (so far) are right in their prediction that if this insane proposal were to see the light of day, people would start littering and dropping off trash illegally in the middle of the night – preferrably right on the steps of city hall!

  7. James Dycus

    I live in Asheville area I pay County taxes an two fire taxes for two Towns I live in I guess????? But I have no trash pick up I have to have my Children come get my trash an take it to a trash dump, or the land fill. I am disabled an not able to do this myself so I have to get someone to come get my trash after I recycle plastic, metal, an un recycleable. I also put stuff in compost my kids started in back yard. Trouble is the RICH are not paying their share of taxes. The hard working people of the poor class pay for everything the rich find a way to make money off of everything an pay for nothing. It has been like that since money was started used to buy things. People used to barter an trade an just help each other. Now who can afford to do anything an what one does offends someone somewhere or someone is suing someone. I pay too high of taxes an do not get S**t from most of the tax.

  8. The easy and cheap way to do this is to simply allow residents to cancel their trash service and either pay their neighbor to allow them to put trash in the neighbors bin or haul it to the dump themselves. no scales or new bins necessary. Also the optional little bins could be phased in over time as the existing bins wear out or get sold to other cities.

  9. Adding scales to the hydraulic arms would be easy. most of the work would be the software, which might be available off the shelf. A sensor on the hydraulic cylinder to feed data to a laptop would be all the hardware necessary to set the trucks up with scales.

  10. some Asheville neighborhoods are too dense for composting, but they already pick up brush and perhaps compost could be combined with that. There is some reason to run a compost truck in the densest neighborhoods. perhaps neighborhood compost dumpsters in cooperation with restaurants. Just pay restaurants a bit to allow the public to use their compost dumpsters.

  11. You could roll the trash collection into the property tax since rich property owners produce more trash than poor people anyway. It’s a better approximation than the current trash fee system.

  12. Since property owners also have the most value to lose from illegal dumping, that is another reason to use the property tax to pay for trash collection. That is in addition to rich property owners producing the most trash, approximately and on average.

  13. Mel King

    I agree with several of the comments. While city trash pickup might be a little different, I have come to the realization that despite my efforts to recycle the other company that picks up trash in the area continues to regard my recycling as regular garbage. I have used every avenue I can to try to improve the situation to no avail. I do not think the higher ups really care about doing anything to improve the situation. Pay as you dump definitely seems like a bad idea to me.

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