The pay-as-you-throw garbage fix

When people start paying individually for the bags of waste they generate, it may encourage them to change their shopping habits.

Public officials in London are considering a ban on plastic bags after officials in a small British town banned plastic bags in May. Earlier this summer, San Francisco banned the sale of bottled water on city-owned property, citing concerns over the quantity of trash produced. The city had already banned plastic bags in March.

Plastic packaging does become trash in landfills, but some plastic bags and water bottles are certainly useful. To get to the "right" amount of trash, we don't need to ban packaging; people just need to know how much it actually costs to dispose of their dirty paper towels, orange peels, or water bottles.

Knowing the cost of these things doesn't mean you need to become a solid-waste expert. Rather, a simple price system can provide you with the information you need to produce the right amount of trash. To determine the right amount, every municipality should enact a pay-as-you-throw trash system. The prices in this system would convey to each of us the costs of our garbage-producing actions.

Market forces like supply and demand don't usually come to mind when thinking of waste disposal. But the same principles apply. People economize with other environmental goods when they face prices, just as they do with everyday items.

In most municipalities, trash disposal costs are invisible. Trash disposal is paid for out of taxes collected for the provision of many services. Trash service appears to us as an all-you-can-throw buffet. Each bag of trash we throw away pushes a landfill one bag closer to capacity. When solid waste authorities need to build a new landfill, they get the money through a budgetary process.

The problem is that under the current system, individuals do not feel the cost of one extra bag of garbage. No one has reason not to consume water out of new bottles or use multiple plastic bags at the grocery store. We are paying for waste disposal, but not paying for each bag of waste we produce. In fact, we do not know when we are paying more – or fewer – taxes for garbage collection and disposal, even when we produce more or less garbage.

By instituting a system where users pay proportionately for the amount of trash they produce – a pay-as-you-throw system – someone who wants to produce a lot of trash can pay the extra cost of their trash. If someone else wants to save money, they can compost, recycle, or simply buy goods with less packaging. Likewise, an environmentally minded citizen could choose to produce less waste and be rewarded with less expense. This system is a good idea environmentally because landfills have costs – environmental and financial. Constructing and managing landfills requires money. Landfills have staff to monitor for environmental concerns and insurance against potential leakage. In a pay-as-you-throw system, these costs get pushed all the way down to the trash producer, giving them the incentive to produce less trash if they want to pay for a smaller fraction of these costs. In contrast, under the current system, people who produce lots of trash are subsidized by the government or by their recycle-minded neighbors.

A pay-as-you-throw system can be designed to fit with the local customs and existing institutions of each municipality. Some towns in the Midwest already have a system in which people purchase stickers at a set rate and put one on each bag to be picked up. Some European countries have meters in the garbage trucks that weigh the garbage as it is piled in. Another potential system could have the garbage man record the number of bags picked up from each family's bar-coded trash bin.

Under the current all-you-can-throw system, the cheap rate encourages people to throw away even more and provides no incentive to buy products with less packaging.

Rather than ban Styrofoam wrappers, plastic bags, or water bottles, municipalities should institute pay-as-you-throw systems. By forcing purchasers to pay for the disposal of these items – bag by bag or pound by pound – their decisions can cover environmental costs and no longer be paid by their neighbors.

Ellenor O'Byrne is a public policy research fellow in Arlington, Va.

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