Written by Caroline Larose Coalition for Resource Recovery (CoRR), New York
For decades, utilities have structured rates to be commensurate with usage – the more kilowatts of electricity a household uses, the more is paid per month. Despite its similarity in service and necessity, municipal solid waste has historically been charged to residents in most U.S. communities as a percent of property taxes or as a flat fee, regardless of generation. Not surprisingly, residents have had little incentive to curtail their waste generation. [i]
As New York City works to meet its ambitious target of 90% reduction in landfill waste by 2030, [ii] the City will need to enlist its residents and businesses in city-wide behavior change. Other cities facing similar challenges have responded by adjusting municipal waste fees to address this mismatch of residential incentives with municipal goals by financially encouraging recycling and composting while financially discouraging trash. These models have come to be known as Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) and are built on the same basic principles that utilities rely on to charge for payment per unit of service used.
The optimal PAYT system measures the amount of individual waste collected, either by weight or volume, and charges the waste producer a fee equal to the social and economic cost of his or her waste generation. This assumes, of course, that the social and economic costs can be nearly perfectly calculated, that waste can be traced directly to the responsible individual, and that billing each individual or household commensurate with generation is feasible. [iii]
Pay-As-You-Throw Success Stories
While ensuring that these assumptions hold true may be tricky in a city as vast as New York, the benefits of a successful PAYT program are impressive. The 2002 report, Municipal Experience with Pay As You Throw Policies: Findings From a National Survey, found that cities that implemented PAYT programs realized dramatic and sustained increases in waste reduction and recycling, and more controlled disposal costs. On average, PAYT cities in this study realized a 44% decrease in waste generation and a 75-100% increase in recycling. [iv]
PAYT is not a new concept; in fact, many of the best researched programs were initially implemented in the early 1990s. Boulder, Colorado was recently inspired by early PAYT success achieved in near-by Colorado cities. Boulder implemented its first PAYT program in 2011 and realized a 33% increase in recycling by 2007, [v] and a 25% reduction in garbage costs.[vi] Boulder and its neighboring cities’ programs further inspired other Colorado cities to consider PAYT including its state capital, Denver. [vii]
Adopting PAYT in New York City will no doubt be a massive undertaking and will require many intermediate steps to ensure its success. However, PAYT programs do not require large-scale operational changes which makes it possible to adjust the current waste billing and measurement systems without any high up-front capital costs. In other words, PAYT can build onto New York’s composting pilot and city-wide curbside recycling and simply more closely matching costs incurred per individual with fees charged per individual.
Pay-As-You-Throw Is Fair & Equitable
Tying generation costs to fees rests on the city’s ability to measure residential waste generation by household, which will not only encourage residents to reduce their waste generation, but also serve to support Mayor de Blasio’s equity initiatives. PAYT provides residents some control over their waste costs and enables the city to offer reduced rates for low income households. While this is more difficult in a city with more than 70% of its population residing in multifamily units, [viii] other large urban areas such as San Jose and Seattle have successfully included multifamily buildings in their PAYT programs [ix] and offer reduced-rate services for low-income households. [x]
While the promised benefits PAYT are alluring, New York City must carefully plan its roll-out of a new residential waste system and engage the public in creating its new structure. Public input serves to ensure that the program addresses the interests and concerns of residents while also informing residents of new potential changes.
Once a program is designed, public outreach and education is imperative to building the resident buy-in that determines PAYT success. A study of several Iowa recycling programs showed that residents under a PAYT system diverted twice as much waste, but only if they were aware of the program. [xi] Educating a city of 8.5 million will require a public branding campaign as well as easily accessible information for questions and concerns. It will also take time.
The city of Athens, Georgia used time to its advantage as it rolled out its PAYT program over a period of 18-months. The implementation included phased changes of waste collection payments by slowly and simultaneously decreasing taxes and increasing a charge that appeared initially on residents’ municipal water bill.[xii] San Jose, California took a similarly intentional approach through extensive public surveys and public engagement through the program design phase. Less than a year after San Jose’s initial program launch, 80% of residents were satisfied with the changes, increasing to 90% after three years. [xiii]
New York City as a Leader for Nationwide Change
As New York aims to reach its admirably lofty waste diversion goals, it will need to rely on more than New Yorkers’ environmental interests and altruism alone, and PAYT has been proven to be an attainable way to make the social and economic costs of waste generation tangible to individuals. Implementing a PAYT in New York City will take time and necessitate public participation in the program design; careful consideration of the expected program costs and revenues; and intentional program branding, advertising, and education. New York City is uniquely positioned to harness the learnings of the more than 7,000 U.S. municipal PAYT programs, and give PAYT the stage that it deserved more than twenty years ago. [xiv]
Sources:[i] Pay-As-You-Throw Success Stories. Rep. Environmental Protection Agency
[viii] American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2010-2014. Rep. United States Census Bureau.
This article originally appeared on Global Green.