Coming Soon to Curbside: George Jetson Gets Your Trash

Forget about overall-clad trashmen grunting and sweating as they drag your garbage bags away from the curb. No, the future of trash collection is brimming with robotic arms, microchips, and pay-by-the-pound service.

And in Pagedale, Mo., the future is now.

Each week a squatty white truck rumbles down the streets of this St. Louis suburb. As the behemoth pulls up next to huge plastic cans that have been distributed to residents, a robotic claw reaches out from the rig's side and hugs the barrels tight.

The container is boosted high in the air and its contents dumped out on a scale behind the truck's cab. A microchip inside the can relays the customer's ID number to an on-board computer, which records the trash's weight.

This is just a test program, but soon the 1,300 residents of Pagedale may actually be paying for each pound of trash they put out.

Although Pagedale is testing the country's most efficient and high-tech system, more than 3,000 communities nationwide already have "volume-based" collection - in which residents pay for each garbage can or bag they trash.

And with their own cash at stake, residents dramatically reduce how much they dump through recycling and composting more.

"This is a gentleman's approach to pushing people to recycle," says Steve Triplett, operations manager at E&H Hauling, which runs the Pagedale program. Very few residents recycled when the weight-based system began last year. Today, 20 percent more households do so. "People are always coming up to the truck and asking how much their trash weighs," Mr. Triplett says.

That kind of interest and incentive to save is the main selling point of weight-based programs, says Lisa Skumatz, a Seattle consultant who helped establish the nation's first weight-based program there in 1990. "People's behavior and their bill are very much linked. They get incentives to recycle and compost every speck they can."

Since it's impossible to charge customers for partial bags or cans, traditional volume-based plans offer less flexibility than paying for garbage by the pound. The ultimate goal is to get people thinking beyond recycling and composting to front-end consumption.

"People can get pretty creative about reducing when they have to pay for every pound," says Jan Canterbury, an expert at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington. "This motivates people to think more about waste prevention - the types of purchases made, reusing things, taking them to thrift stores, buying in bulk."

"It's the ultimate in fairness," says Ms. Skumatz. Since the initial Seattle program, about 20 localities nationwide have tested weight-based systems.

Most of the tests haven't been fully implemented because of technological problems. The trick has been installing mobile scales that meet federal and state guidelines for accuracy.

Although several residential programs in the Midwest are expected to debut soon, a commercial hauler in Oakland Park, Fla., has taken the lead in charging its customers by the pound.

EVEN as the technology is being perfected, some city waste managers are skeptical of weight-based systems, particularly in urban areas. "A volume-based system in an urban area is very regressive," says Mike Engelbart, resource-recovery manager in Milwaukee. "It is most expensive for the people who are least able to afford it - large families in high-density, low-income areas."

Studies have found that low-income households produce more garbage than middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. "People are less likely to go out to eat in restaurants and cook almost all their meals at home," Mr. Engelbart says.

But Triplett counters that "we should be responsible for our buying habits and our waste habits." This responsibility may not come very soon, however. It's taken 30 years to move away from three-times-a-week trash pickup in many places, Triplett says. And "it could be another five to 10 years before technology starts forcing the issue" of weight-based systems.

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