As Americans continue to flirt with ways to reduce waste while managing disposal capacity, recent reports note that the nation's overall recovery rate is increasing. This may be thanks, in part, to some communities' love affair with variable-rate waste management, also known as pay-as-you-throw (PAYT), programs.

According to the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation's recent study, “Variable-Rate or ‘Pay-as-you-Throw’ Waste Management: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” PAYT is proving to be a powerful source reduction tool. In fact, on average it has helped more than 5,000 communities to reduce their overall refuse tonnage by nearly 17 percent.

The majority of communities across the United States adhere to a flat-rate system — collected through a portion of property taxes or a fixed bill amount. However, “putting a price on the waste stream creates incentives for people to separate [recyclables] out and makes them more suitable for re-marketing as recycled goods,” says Kenneth Green, chief scientist for the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit research and education organization.

“The most surprising finding of the study is the sheer magnitude of the waste that can be avoided [with PAYT],” Green says. “I don't think that many people have an idea that through changing the incentives and the pricing mechanism that you can have such [an] affect on the end outcome.”

Currently, PAYT programs are available to 20 percent of the population; only four states offer no PAYT systems, the foundation's study notes. Several states, such as Washington and Minnesota, have mandated state assistance for PAYT programs. And a growing number of other states actively are promoting this collection method.

For example, New York City is a grand-scale example of a municipality that's taking notice of PAYT's perks. In his 2002 study, “Cutting New York's Trash Costs Through Pay-As-You-Throw,” author Steve Hammer, also president of New York's Hammer Environmental Consulting, discusses how the city could reduce its annual $1 billion solid waste budget by implementing a PAYT system. Currently, New York City's property tax-based system allows for unlimited curbside pickup, which can result in higher costs.

“If New Yorkers achieve … a 6 percent waste prevention rate … then the savings would be well over $100 million per year,” Hammer says. “There will be a groundswell of environmental and community group support for this concept because of the potential to reduce the total volume of waste generated in New York City.”

According to the Reason Foundation's study, PAYT can be implemented via several collection systems, including:

  • Can programs

    Customers select an appropriate size or number of containers for their weekly disposal. Residents who dispose of more than their weekly allotted amount are charged more.

  • Bag programs

    Customers buy bags imprinted with logos ahead of time (marked for yard waste, recyclables and regular waste). The price of the bag includes collection, transport and disposal.

  • Tag and sticker programs

    This is identical to bag programs except customers buy stickers or tags to affix to the appropriate waste.

  • Hybrid programs

    This method combines the current collection system with a new incentive-based system. Instead of unlimited collection for one monthly fee, customers have a limited volume of service.

  • Weight-based programs

    A modified scale on trucks weighs garbage containers, and customers are charged for their actual pounds of garbage disposed.

  • Other variations

    Some communities or haulers offer PAYT along with their standard unlimited system, using waste drop-off programs, punch cards or other customer tracking systems.

“Virtually any community can find [a method] suitable for their lifestyle,” Green says. “It's not imposed by a one-size-fits-all approach based on municipal government.”

PAYT programs are especially helpful in raising recycling rates when there's a market for recyclables, the study says.

To implement an effective PAYT program, the foundation suggests communities address logistical concerns.

For example, with can systems, customers must determine their normal service level for billing, which can be tricky. Additionally, if the community or the hauler provides containers, the purchase, distribution and storage of the containers can be expensive. With bag or sticker programs, a supply and distribution system is needed, such as a grocery store or convenience store. Customers then need to store bags or tags, and have them on-hand when they are gathering their garbage.

One concern with weight-based systems is that they may require additional time at the curb, and trucks must be retrofitted with special scales. Also, billing systems can be complicated.

Nevertheless, Green says that PAYT remains promising, and minor inconveniences should not outweigh PAYT's environmental gains.

“There's always been tension between do[ing] it the way we've always done it vs. going through a little inconvenience for the sake of really [gaining] value,” Green says. “[PAYT] offers many advantages, and people are becoming more aware of environmental quality.”

Moreover, as disposal capacity and siting problems for landfills and waste disposal facilities continue to grow, “these pressures mean municipalities are going to be hungry for ways to reduce the flow into landfills,” Green continues. “I think [communities are] realizing over time that flat-rate programs and voluntary curbside recycling don't make a significant waste reduction.”

To obtain a copy of the foundation's study, visit www.rppi.org or call (310) 391-2245.