How does pay-as-you-throw smell?

San Francisco garbage cans

Garbage cans being distributed for San Francisco's pay-as-you-throw program. The city is aiming to someday have zero waste. (Photo by Flickr user ToastyKen.)

The Albany landfill is running out of space. In fact, it's expected to be full by the end of next year. The city has been trying to get the state DEC to approve an expansion of the facility, but the DEC bounced the first few proposals and said something along the lines of "Come on. You're not even trying."

So the latest draft proposal includes a few strategies for reducing the amount of garbage thrown into the landfill. Among them is something called "pay-as-you-throw." It's pretty much what is sounds like -- the more you throw out, the more you pay.

OK, so does that actually work? We went dumpster diving for answers.

How's it work?
The technical term for pay-as-you-throw is "variable rate" or "unit-based" pricing -- it's friends mostly call it PAYT. There are a handful of different ways to go about this pricing. The most popular include city-issued trash cans, specially marked trash bags and stickers for regular trash bags (kind of like stamps). Whatever the method, it's all about attaching a cost to putting stuff out at the curb. The more stuff, the more it costs -- and the hope is people will reduce their garbage output as a result.

How many places use it?
Apparently, PAYT has taken off over the last decade after the federal EPA started pushing it. An article in Municipal Solid Waste Management (yes, we really did read it) reports that PAYT has been a "phenomenal success" over that time. More than 7,000 communities around the country now use it, including about 42 percent of the communities in New York State.

Does it actually work?
According to a study conducted by a consulting group, PAYT decreases trash disposal by 16-17 percent on average and increases recycling by 5-6 percent.

Won't it be a huge hassle, though?
Maybe. Surveys indicate that people end up liking PAYT because they see it as fairer than the "dump as much as you want" systems. That said, the switch doesn't always go smoothly. When Athens, Georgia first made the switch, people were upset about being explicitly charged for garbage collection -- so they just didn't go along with it. People did eventually get on board, though. Apparently having enough customer service reps to answer questions and get the word out is a big issue when a city makes the switch.

OK, but what about here?
That's a good question. The situation with the Albany landfill is kind of complicated. People in the City of Albany aren't explicitly charged for garbage collection now, so that's going to be an adjustment (see Athens, GA). The other tricky part is that the city makes money by taking garbage from surrounding towns -- about $13 million a year (about 8 percent of the budget). If there's less trash, there's less revenue.

But there might be other ways of making up the difference. As an RPI professor recently pointed out, the city could probably make some money by doing a better job of picking out valuable recyclable materials from its garbage. That would also reduce the amount of garbage going into the landfill.

So has anyone lived in a place with pay-as-you-throw? How was it? Our logical side says "Sure, bring it on." But the "Oh, great, one more thing to worry about as we drag our trash cans and recycling to the curb in the rain" side of us isn't so excited.

The Bottom Line

There seems to be a lot of evidence that pay-as-you-throw garbage plans do reduce the amount of trash people throw out. People even seem to like the idea... eventually.


First thought: Pay to give you my garbage? Very annoying idea. Second thought: Less garbage I create = less money I have to spend, benefits myself and the city.
Third thought: Wait, pay for my garbage?

No. Build a bigger landfill.

On a side note, did anyone else know that you can be ticketed for bringing your trash out too early? I found out the hard way about a month ago.

yes, pay for your garbage. that way you don't waste so much. you're going to pay for it one way or another, through taxes or directly. (and, either way, through environmental impact.)

i was talking about this with some other downtown residents, and someone raised the argument that, living downtown, people might abuse the system by throwing their garbage in other people's containers. i don't know if this is valid. i put out my recycling every week, and no one abuses *that.* plus, you pay by the size of the container, whether or not it is full. so, even if someone did put in a little extra garbage, how would that cost you more?

This is already being done in other countries (notably Germany and Switzerland) with great effect. We could also use more separate recycle bins.

One of the nice side effects of this, for all you capitalism fans out there, is that consumers won't want to buy products with lots of excess packaging (that they'll have to pay to toss) so manufacturers will make greener packaging. (But then again, they *still* sell eggs in styrofoam at a lot of stores!)

They should start by picking up my recycling. I live in a less than affluent part of Albany and my recycling usually stays out for almost a month before they pick it up. I called the city waste people once (about a year ago) and they actually told me to throw it out!

Yes, my personal concern would be that people would stick things in my garbage can. Or somehow make it my garbage instead of theirs.

They have done it with numerous other things on my block - including bagging leaves in a trash bag instead of the appropriate lawn and leaf bags - and it getting stuck on my part of the curb.

There's an easy solution to paying for only your own garbage (again, from what has worked in other countries). The city can sell bags (or stickers to put on bags that cannot exceed a certain size) and you tie those up and leave them out by the curb instead of an open dumpster.

"Build a bigger landfill" is no longer an option. It will continue to reach capacity, and continue to need expansion, ad infinitum.

And, if you don't like the idea of paying someone to take your trash, you're more than welcome to start disposing of it on your own property.

The complaint of other residents making their trash your problem is a valid one. It's tracky to solve; is there any way to enforce illegal dumping fines for placing trash on someone else's property? Any way to let residents lock bins so that only they and waste disposal can unlock them?

I live in Bethlehem, which functionally has a PAYT system- all trash collection is done by private haulers. Is this really a new and unusual way of doing things?

I suspect that most municipalities began garbage collection services to avoid littering/ dumping, which I can see as being a problem.

downtown resident-

If we are already paying for it through city taxes, who would want to pay even more to get rid of their garbage? Unless there would be some sort of tax break? You're right, people do "pay" for their garbage removal through taxes but if you start sending people a "garbage bill" I just don't think it will go over well.

People are missing the point. Albany's problem isn't that the landfill can't accommodate the city's trash, it's that the city relies on revenues from outside communities disposing at the landfill to pay for city services. If it only accepted its own trash, the landfill would have lasted another decade or more. "Pay as you throw" isn't the issue - most of Albany landfill's trash doesn't come from Albany and the city can't impose it on other communities. So, sure, reduce the small percentage that comes from Albany by a little bit, but it won't change the problem at all.

My Albany taxes are already too high and the included municipal garbage pick-up is one of the reasons I don't complain too much. I think they should increase what they charge other towns to put their garbage in our dump before they start charging residents.

@Jackers: my recycling usually stays out for almost a month before they pick it up.

Yes, it's called "natural recycling". Rain helps too :)

@B, @Lola: I have the same problem too, it's a "let's trash everywhere" party behind my block. Got raccoons too (my folks in Frenchland don't believe me). The solution? I call the city, damn'it (under your name, B, that's OK right?).

Albany Health Department:
(518) 447-4580
They often forward me to Environment, but most of the times Code will take care of it: (518) 434 5995.
They will check properties, or come to yours if you can't access said property (escalate to the "manager" if you need to).

I don't know about the pay-as-you-throw pricing system, BUT if you'd like to learn more about the proposed expansion to the Rapp Road facility, there is a public involvement website created by the company I work for here:

The proposal included multiple expansion alternatives and photosimulations of what the expansions would look like from the surrounding area including how it would impact the nearby Pine Bush Preserve.

This is a terrible idea.

1. PAYT or not, Albany will still need to build a bigger landfill. The only question left concerns the rate at which it will increase.
2. Consumers do not have much choice in the size of packaging. A recession will only exacerbate this fact. A person is not going to stop and decide what type of packaging they need when they are concerned with putting food on the table.
3. Most PAYT communities are more rural. Compare this with the make-up of many areas in Albany. How many people know their neighbors? People are more likely to abuse the system (read: dump their garbage in their neighbors cans) when their neighbors have a greater degree of anonymity. People already place trash items in my bins.
4. This may lead to a significant increase in illegal dumping. Sure, statistics can say anything. A decrease in tonnage to the local dump in PAYT systems may be explained by a correlated increase in illegal dumping.
5. Do Albany tax dollars already cover the cost of trash management? If PAYT is implemented, what will happen to the money already allocated to trash removal?
6. In response to B: "And, if you don't like the idea of paying someone to take your trash, you're more than welcome to start disposing of it on your own property." I sincerely hope this was sarcasm. You will be ticketed for disposing trash on your own property.

We live in one of the 'burbs where we must pay for garbage removal... or take a teeny tiny bag of trash each day to work and drop it in their dumpster. Just kidding. Ahem.

With just a bit of effort, we recycle at least 50% of our waste. Either it goes into the recycling bin or it goes into our luscious compost bin.

Compost bins are the lazy (wo)man's garbage dream. Better yet, make your own from free pallets:

love the link for the compost bin...
It seems if more emphasis was put on recycling AND composting in all municipalities the volume of trash would be reduced considerably. (let's not forget last winter's "let's just throw the recycling" {which is mandatory in the city} in with the trash when the snow gets too high") At the very least the city does compost and mulch tree and yard waste for you (easy enough to get at DGS near Huck Finns) But seriously, (as others mentioned) why aren't the rates raised for other towns dumping their trash in this landfill? um..duh..can it just be that simple? seems so...
like others I take great pride in boasting that yes, Albany taxes are outrageous, but we don't pay *extra* for garbage pickup! (btw, d'you think Jennings even knows this web site exists?)

I've worked on Washington Ave directly across the street from the Albany Landfill for the past five years, and see every day how quickly it is growing. From our perspective the bulldozers spreading fresh dirt over the trash are above the tree line. Aside from being an eyesore during my cigarette break, it stinks, especially when it rains, when we're downwind and when the sun is shining. And there's obviously no silver bullet, whether it be a PAYT system or limitation of outside dumping or moderate expansion into the Pine Bush (although all of these options in combination are probably a good start.) We have to approach this - like everything else - holistically and change our disposable culture.
@Cato - We're very lucky to live in an agriculturally productive region where there's access to so many things that don't need excessive packaging because they didn't travel halfway across the world to get here. If more people took advantage of local products and supported small farms and businesses then these resources would be more available in urban areas.

I've had multiple garbage cans stolen from me... What happens if someone steals my pay one?

That would suck.

Cato, yes that was sarcasm, and this might even be sarcasm as well, honestly I've gotten so used to it it's hard for me to distinguish.

You seem to have a good handle on this issue. So what's the answer, if PAYT isn't part of it? Keep growing the landfill (where?)? Stop charging other areas to dump there (and make up that $13 million how?)? Charge other areas and commcerial institutions more to dump there (and when they find somewhere else to dump that's cheaper, make up that $13 million how?)? Or some other suggestion that hasn't been put forward here yet?

Note I say that PAYT is part of the answer. Nobody says it's a silver bullet. But if it does significantly reduce the amount of waste going into the fill, isn't that going to help? I agree that illegal dumping will no doubt increase, but let's do a little math here. The fill takes in 1050 tons of waste a day. 9% of that is from the city of Albany. That's 94.5 tons of waste from Albany in the dump every day. The study cited above claims that PAYT reduces waste by 16-17%, so let's just go with a nice even 15% (yes I know the number fifteen is in fact odd, I've never been all that great at math which is why calculators are one of the best inventions ever). That would be a little over 14 tons of waste a day. 98 tons of waste a week. Where exactly, do you think people are going to illegally dump fourteen tons of waste daily and not have some pretty strict code enforcement riding their asses?

Whether or not we agree on the statistics or implementations, there is one fact here: we need to reduce the amount of waste we generate. We need to. There's no way around it. One point of a multi-pronged approach to this is to increase the responsibility of individual residents to reduce the waste they generate. I see PAYT as one good way to accomplish this, and at least one study agrees with this sentiment. Anectodal evidence in the comments above show how effectively households can reduce their waste if given sufficient impetus.

So, wait, why is PAYT a bad idea again?

Halfmoon essentially has a PAYT system for everyone who doesn't hire a private hauler. It works like this: You buy a punch card at the town hall worth 10 large trash bags. You haul your stuff to the transfer station where you put everything in the appropriate dumpsters. There is no charge for anything you recycle or compost, but you pay (I believe) $1.75 for every bag of what actually goes to the landfill.

When I explain this system to visitors, they all think it is sensible and eminently fair. And there is no question that it does make you conscious of what you are doing, in much the same way as the bottle deposit does. It figured into our cost/benefit analysis for cloth diapers, for instance. All of that aside, from what I have been hearing lately on the radio, single stream recycling might work better. Is anybody looking into that option?

I kinda can't believe that this discussion didn't take place a decade ago, or if it did that it didn't get any traction. I lived in Binghamton for years before moving here and we loved our "green bag" system because the excrutiatingly expensive bags gave pause for thought. Not to mention those wealthy enough to consume were also wealthy enough to pay for their pre-packaged extravagences. Moreover, those of us making substantially less no longer had to subsidize the ecologically destructive externalities of conspicous consumption. While it is hardly surprising that European nations such as Germany are leading the way with such rational social thought, it stuns me to think that Binghamton is more progressive on this issue than the Capital District. TG

Its interesting to me that no one has mentioned that many city residents will not pay to have their trash hauled, and will instead dispose of it in ways that have unpleasant consequences for the rest of us. Traditionally, that is why most cities have not charged for trash pickup- there are public health/sanitation/quality of life issues to be considered.

I am one of those city residents that thinks the City of Albany has a lot of nerve to mismanage its garbage program for decades then stick me with the bill. I fully support and practice waste reduction and recycling, but there are other ways to accomplish those necessary goals. Our taxes sure aren't going to go down after PAYT is initiated, and trash removal is one of the services those taxes are supposed to cover.

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