There’s been a lot of trash talk in Charlotte recently. And no, we don’t mean college basketball. The city is studying pay-as-you-throw garbage service as a way to reduce the amount of trash we send to the landfill.
One of the big players in pay-as-you-throw is WasteZero, based in Raleigh. The company sells special garbage bags in about 70 cities for between 50 cents and $2 that residents have to use for their household trash. The cost of collecting and disposing the trash is built into the price of the bag. WasteZero takes a cut of 15 to 34 cents to cover its operating costs and profit and then sends the rest to the city. The company claims when people pay based on what they use, they tend to send less trash to the landfill.
WasteZero board chair John Campbell says, “Across our cities, we’ve been able to achieve a 44 percent waste reduction, which is from one year to the next.”
That number got the attention of Charlotte city staff, when WasteZero made its pitch last March. A city audit last year found that about 30 percent of what households throw away can be recycled.
Deputy City Manager Ann Wall says city staff is now starting an in-depth study of pay-as-you-throw and other alternatives to make trash collection environmentally friendly.
“We don’t know if this is a service we want to pursue, but what we’ve heard from other communities is that it is an effective way to reduce the waste stream and to promote recycling,” says Wall.
It’s also important because the landfill Charlotte uses in Cabarrus County is about 20 years away from its capacity.
WasteZero’s largest client is Worchester, Massachusetts, population 180,000. The city went to a pay as you throw 21 years ago.
Bob Fiore, assistant to the city’s commissioner of public works and parks, says “we saw our trash go from almost 47,000 tons in a year to right around 25,000 tons.”
Fiore says the level has stayed comparably low ever since. The average household, he says, generates about a bag and a half of garbage a week. Pay as you throw is fairly common in New England, where landfill space comes at a premium. The tipping fee, or the cost to dump trash in a landfill, is around $75 per ton for Worchester. Contrast that to Charlotte, which pays $29 a ton.
In fact, the way Charlotte budgets for solid waste disposal could be an impediment to switching to usage-based trash fees. That’s because the city’s $47 a year fee only generates about a quarter of the solid waste budget. But City Manager Ron Carlee says most pay-as-you-throw systems are designed to fund the entire cost of collection and disposal. So that would mean Charlotte residents would pay more than $47 a year for bags. But don’t worry. Carlee says that would be untenable unless the city lowered other fees to offset the difference.
“I do not think there is any support on the part of the mayor and the council to impose new fees on Charlotteans, “ he says. “And in fact, the direct guidance I have had from them is to try to find ways to hold fees down in both water and sewer and stormwater.”
City staff is studying whether this could work financially as well as looking at other potential consequences. For example, could pay as you throw system motivate people to dump trash in empty lots or other trash cans? In Worchester, Mass., city official Bob Fiore says that wasn’t a problem. He says there’s more than 99 percent compliance of people using their designated yellow trash bags:
“It’s very rare that you find more than maybe 50 locations," he says, "and this is out of over 52,000 locations we collect every week, that have a non-yellow bag.”
One of WasteZero’s newest clients, the town of Waterville, Maine, population 16,000, started pay as you throw in August. About six weeks later, the local paper reported a surge in illegal dumping in privately-owned dumpsters.
Charlotte City staff plan to study pay as you throw over the next several months. They plan to give City Council a report in May.
Editor's Note: A sentence was changed to clarify that Waste Zero runs pay-as-throw systems in 70 cities. In these cities, residents must use Waste Zero bags.