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Cambridge, Mass., firm pitches pay-as-you-throw plan for city trash pickup

April 4, 2013

WOONSOCKET – It’s like the forgotten stepchild of the Budget Commission’s five-year plan.
Pension rollbacks, cuts in workers’ healthcare benefits and supplemental taxes have glommed all the attention as strategies for helping the city start to chip away at a projected deficit on track to reach $105 million by 2017.
But the calculus of fiscal solvency also calls for raising $1 million a year in new revenue by hiking residential trash fees, and a company called Waste Zero from Cambridge, Mass., showed commissioners how they can do it this week.
Waste Zero specializes in a collection system widely called “pay as you throw,” but the term that’s become more fashionable in waste disposal circles these days is “trash metering.” Cut through the jargon and it all boils down to the same thing: requiring city residents to purchase bags that must be used for the disposal of non-recyclable household trash.
Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran says advocates of increased recycling have adopted the new lingo to underscore the parallels between trash disposal and other utilities like electricity and water. They want people to realize that every time a truck drives by their house and picks up trash that’s destined for the lifespan-limited Central Landfill, the service comes with a cost, just like flicking on a light.
The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which runs the Johnston-based landfill, likes trash-metering programs. Krystal Noiseux, the director of recycling programs for the recovery corporation, says that homeowners instantly start recycling more when they realize that disposing trash comes with a cost that they can see every time they put out their curbside collectibles.
There are over a dozen cities and towns that have embraced some form of trash-metering, but the one most like that proposed for Woonsocket is located in Middletown, where recycling rates shot up 25.8 percent after the town adopted pay-as-you-throw, according to Noiseux.
“We see great increases in recycling rates when people implement pay-as-you-throw programs,” she says.
As Waste Zero put it in a presentation to the commission earlier this week, “Trash metering is a system that communicates the price of solid waste to residents. When residents become aware of the cost, they reduce their trash.”
Woonsocket residents already pay $24 per quarter for each household unit to have the city’s solid waste contractor, Waste Management, pick up curbside trash.
If the commission embraces the Waste Zero plan, city residents would pay an additional $2 for every 30-gallon bag of solid waste they stuff into their curbside carts. Elderly residents could get a 25-cent discount if they opt for smaller, 13-gallon bags, according to Solid Waste Supt. Michael Debroisse.
McGauvran and Debroisse defer to the budget commission when asked about the likelihood of pay-as-you-throw, or PAYT, landing in the city. The commission, which marks its one-year anniversary next month, was seated by the state to take control of the city’s purse-stings and get its financial house in order.
While the panel has not adopted a timetable for acting on the Waste Zero proposal, McGauvran said, “The budget commission has included $1 million in savings as part of its five-year plan. That’s all we have to go on right now.”
The important thing for residents to know, according to Debroisse, is that if the program is implemented, nothing about the existing collection program would change, except for the sale of bags. The bags would still have to be inserted into the brown, 64-gallon carts already used for collection of non-recyclable household trash. As usual, the carts would be emptied by Waste Management, a private hauler the city already pays about $2.5 million a year for collecting trash.
“There are other pay-as-you-throw programs in the state, but Middletown is the one that most resembles the type of program we are in a position to implement,” says Debroisse.
If the city did adopt the plan, however, it would generate revenue in two ways, according to McGauvran. PAYT would drive down the overall volume of non-recyclable trash city contractors haul to Central Landfill at a cost of $32 per ton, a rate known as a tipping fee. It would also drive up the amount of “profit-sharing” the city receives from RIRRC for recycling.
The city recycled about 31 percent of its trash in fiscal 2012 and earned a payoff of about $57,000 even though the volume was about 4 percent lower than the recycling goals established by the corporation, according to the RIRRC. Those figures would be expected to rise substantially under PAYT.
During a brief presentation before the commission on Tuesday, representatives of Waste Zero predicted PAYT would result in the diversion of 44 percent of the city’s annual waste stream from the landfill, or about 4,033 tons. Assuming bags cost $2 each, the program would generate additional revenue of $925,000 a year, including $786,000 from the sale of bags, $10,000 more in recycling profit-sharing, and a savings of $129,000 in reduced tipping fees.
Waste Zero actually offered the city two alternative revenue-generating options for trash pickup, and the former was the least aggressive of the pair. The company said the city could bring in more than $1.9 million if it doubled the per household collection fee to $48 per fiscal quarter, coupled with the sale of bags.
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