Sitting on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, Austin, Texas, is known for its environmentally conscious population and progressive environmental policies. In the early 1990s, the capitol city of Texas initiated the first pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program — under which residents are charged for solid waste services based on the amount of trash they set aside for disposal — in the state. Austin also was one of the first major cities in the country to implement such a program.

Prior to the implementation of Austin's PAYT program, Texas had 493 landfills accepting waste; that number has decreased to 191. However, Texas is still home to some of the lowest landfill tipping fees in the country, with Austin currently paying $19.48 per ton for household waste disposal. In this environment, why would the city's Solid Waste Services Department (SWS) want to implement a potentially controversial program and treat household garbage as a utility?

In the Beginning

As a result of the cancellation of plans to build a waste-to-energy facility in 1988 and the rapidly diminishing capacity at its landfill, the city of Austin decided to do something to generate less trash and extend the life of the disposal site. As a result, the city passed the Comprehensive Recycling Resolution in 1990. The resolution paved the way for a pilot program to determine the effectiveness of a PAYT program. The city conducted a pilot program consisting of approximately 3,000 households from July 1991 until July 1992. The households also were given 14-gallon bins in which they could place any accepted recyclables.

After determining that the pilot was successful in reducing per capita waste generation, the city began the first phase of a three-phase, citywide rollout for the PAYT program. Approximately 30,000 households were included in the first phase, and the city eventually deployed roughly 120,000 carts to residential customers. SWS enlisted the help of volunteer block leaders to assist city staff in educating residents about the program.

By 1997, the city had implemented a variable rate pay structure with three sizes of carts for household trash: 32, 64 and 96 gallons. Additionally, residents are charged for extra trash that is placed outside the cart.

Currently, stickers can be purchased at local grocery stores for $4.00 each and affixed to any extra bags placed outside the cart. Any unstickered bags are billed to the customer's utility bill at a rate of $8.00 per bag. The city generated revenues of nearly $1.6 million dollars in fiscal year 2009 from unstickered trash and $152,200 from stickered trash. However, after the city communicated extensively with residents about the associated fees, the amount of extra garbage being set out has been declined considerably. This year, revenue from extra garbage fees likely will be closer to $1 million dollars.

To encourage recycling, SWS allows customers to downsize their cart at no fee. However, the city adds a one-time $15.00 charge to residents' utility bills if they upgrade their cart size.