EPA webinar explores pay-as-you throw best practices

EPA webinar explores pay-as-you throw best practices

The webinar, coordinated by EPA Sustainable Materials Management Web Academy, featured experts in pay-as-you throw programs.

August 1, 2018

Natick, Massachusetts, a town with about 33,000 residents, used to have a lot of trash. After facing pressure from regional budget cuts, the town was forced to reevaluate its public programs.  One such program was the city’s waste collection service.

“Our journey has largely been influenced by pay-as-you throw (PAYT),” said Jillian Wilson-Martin, sustainability coordinator for Natick and speaker in the Pay-as-You Throw Best Management Practices and Success Programs webinar, which took place July 26 and was coordinated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sustainable Materials Management Web Academy.

According to the EPA, Washington, typical waste collection programs charge residents fixed fees or property taxes regardless of the amount of materials they throw away. In PAYT programs, according to the EPA’s website, “Residents are charged for the collection of municipal solid waste (MSW)—ordinary household trash—based on the amount they throw away.”

Wilson-Martin said, “The real story here is that PYAT has saved our town quite a bit of money,” adding that the program also increased the amount of recycling in Natick by about 20 percent.

Making the switch

Susan Bush, senior consultant for Orlando, Florida-based RSE USA, said in the webinar PAYT programs come in various shapes and sizes. Programs are generally implemented with a base fee, which typically covers recycling service, base-level trash service and yard trimming collection. Some programs might include composting or household hazardous waste. Residents face an extra charge when the amount of trash they dispose exceeds the volume covered by the initial fee.

Bush, who spoke in the webinar on behalf of the Denton, Texas-based Carton Council, said PAYT programs provide a monetary incentive for residents to reduce the amount of trash they dispose.

“PAYT is one policy that has been proven to be the single most effective way of reducing the amount of trash disposed and increasing recycling,” she continued.

Communities with PAYT choose between a cart program or a bag program. Citing Closer to Zero, a study by Washington-based Institute of Local Self Reliance (ILSR) that will be released to the public in September, Bush said cart programs have been found to be less effective at reducing amount of trash disposed than bag programs.  Bag programs give residents smaller increments of volume to work with, Bush said, so these programs keep trash disposal at “the front and center” of residents’ minds.

Charles Kamenides, waste services manager for the city of Longmont, Colorado, and a speaker in the webinar, said his community chose the cart program for safety reasons. “A big drive for that was to reduce injuries received from collecting material. Each of our trucks go out with one driver and an automated system.”

Despite ISLR findings, Kamenides said the cart program made a notable difference in reducing the amount of waste landfilled in Longmont.

He said, “Of our trash tons collected and landfilled, in our first six months we’ve landfilled about 13,000 tons. Longmont’s typical total landfill tons per year is about 28,000 to 30,000.” He added that if the city continued on this route, it would make a difference in Longmont.

Persuading the public

Though the webinar speakers all had different stories of PAYT implementation, they all agreed that transitioning a community into PAYT programming can be a challenge.

“Funding for PAYT is often partly tax based and partly an additional fee paid on a utility bill or paid by somebody when they purchase their bags,” Bush said. “It can be challenging if a community has always had tax-based services and now the cost of the program is suddenly more visible and more transparent.”

She continued, “People have started to think of trash and recycling as something that ought to be free or really is free, and there are obviously costs associated.”

When a community transitions to a PAYT program, some amount of backlash is likely, speakers agreed. Bush said the best way to handle this is to communicate with the public as much as possible. 

“Anticipate any concerns and address them in advance,” she said. “In this world of social media, it’s very easy for false information and fears to spread like wildfire, so if you’re trying to implement a PAYT program in your community, it’s best to get in front of those concerns. Let the public and the local officials know how well the program is doing so that it can continue to garner support.”

Before Longmont transitioned to PAYT, Kamenides said he hired a consultant to outline the most optimal program for his town. The consultant developed cost/risk models, which allowed the city to implement a plan that would pay for itself.

Kamenides said he expected a lot of complaints from residents regarding the increased rates. Overall, however, he said few people called to complain, adding that many people appreciated the “equity” of the new program. He said, “PYAT gives you an opportunity to select your rates.”

After noticing residents’ confusion over PAYT options, Kamenides put together a “value package,” which he said made the program more accessible.

“We determined that all the new choices appeared to be overwhelming for our residents; but, when we decided to bundle and create these value packages, it really resonated across the community,” he said. “Think about how you’re bundling your TV or your cable or [how] you’ll buy a value meal. It really resonates with the community in a marketing sense.”

Wilson-Martin said Natick faced a budget shortfall of about $1.5 million because of statewide cuts to local aid. To address the problem, the town implemented a one-year trash fee of $150 per household and formed a PAYT committee charged with investigating PAYT options for Natick.

The committee was composed of members from the town’s recycling committee, the Board of Selectmen and the sanitation division. Members worked to design a program that would prevent widespread layoffs and cuts to government programs. In addition, Wilson-Martin said committee members were “champions of public outreach and education.”

Even with the development of the PAYT committee, Wilson-Martin said the change resulted in “political backlash” from a group of Natick residents angry about the extra fees. Residents against PAYT collected enough signatures to demand a special election regarding PAYT in Natick. Despite said backlash, Wilson-Martin said 72 percent of voters voted to keep PAYT.

Paying it forward

Though communities switching to PAYT programs face a somewhat unpredictable adjustment period, the programs have been shown to be effective in the long run.

Based on a national study, Bush said communities with PAYT programs see a 50 percent increase in tons recycled and a 15 to 20 percent decrease in disposed materials. Additionally, two-thirds of communities do not see a budget increase with implementation of PAYT, and 90 percent of residents prefer the program once it is implemented.

Wilson-Martin said PAYT resolved Natick’s budget issue, prevented widespread layoffs, cut waste by 40 percent and reduced collection costs.

“PAYT is not a settled issue in Natick,” she said. “I think that in the future we will continue to have PYAT programs, but the size and shape of that program might change.”

In Longmont, Kamenides said the diversion rate has reached 40 percent and 4,000 people signed up for the composting service, with the number still climbing.

“Why did Longmont consider PAYT?” Kamenides asked. “It was about the increased importance of what we do. We like looking 10, 20, 30 years down the road so we can be prepared for what’s coming.”

He continued, “The importance of planning for the future and sending less to the landfill revolves around it’s expensive and difficult to open more landfills. We just need to look forward and plan our future waste management, and for Longmont our future is less landfilling and more managed diversion.”