Gold in the Garbage: How Recycling Rates Could Be a Lot Higher

'Pay as you throw' is a powerful tool whose benefits go beyond simply boosting recycling.
February 22, 2016
By Neil Seldman  |  Contributor
Co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The national average recycling rate has been holding at just under 35 percent for the past five years, after rapid growth in the 1990s and 2000s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That state of stagnation might suggest that there are no tools left to help municipalities boost recycling, but that is far from the case. A wide variety of localities have increased their recycling rates to 50 percent or more. What are they doing that the others are not?

The answer may be about as close to a magic bullet as local-government leaders can get: "pay-as-you-throw" (PAYT) programs, which are operating in 7,000 communities throughout the United States with great popularity and effectiveness. PAYT brings per-volume (or per-bag or -can) pricing to non-recyclable garbage, allowing households to pay for their trash collection the way they already pay for their water or electricity: based on how much they use. Being aware of the cost of garbage leads people to throw away as little as they can and to recycle more.

PAYT's impressive results prove that localities don't have to accept a stagnant recycling rate and high trash volume as the status quo. The city of Waterville, Maine, saw its trash volume go down by 54 percent after it adopted a PAYT program in 2014. Decatur, Ga., has cut trash by 42 percent with PAYT and doubled its recycling rate. When Worcester, Mass., began its PAYT program in 1993, the recycling rate increased from 2 percent to 38 percent in the first week. (It has continued to increase and now sits at 43 percent.)

PAYT has benefits beyond increasing the recycling rate. Communities can save significantly on equipment, labor, transportation and other waste-disposal costs. In Worcester, for example, the program has had a $94.5 million financial impact: $46.8 million in revenue, $26.3 million in operational savings and $21.4 million in disposal savings at a nearby incinerator between 1993 and 2014. "If communities are serious about recycling, they will embrace pay-as-you-throw," says Robert Moylan, the public-works director who started and ran Worcester's PAYT program. "It takes political courage, but it's proven to be effective."

The environmental benefits of PAYT are significant as well. Reducing the amount of trash that's sent to incinerators and landfills can dramatically cut the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. And when people recycle more, more recyclable material is available for manufacturing, which creates meaningful energy savings.

The Washington, D.C., region is a good example of how PAYT could impact recycling rates, budget savings and the environment. The region has not yet seen widespread adoption of PAYT, but could benefit from it as much as others. For example, studies suggest that the city of Washington, with its stagnant 20-25 percent residential recycling rate, could reach 50 percent within just one to two years with adoption of PAYT.

An EPA study focusing on New England found a 49 percent reduction in the amount of waste generated in 228 PAYT communities. For D.C., that level of reduction would not only save the city millions of dollars in waste-disposal spending every year but, according to EPA data, also would mean greenhouse-gas reduction equal to taking 15,000 cars off the road, while the energy savings from increased use of recycled materials would be the same as what's used to power 5,800 houses for a year.

In nearby Carroll County, Md., by one estimate a PAYT system would save the county $2.5 million annually -- the same amount of the county's current annual subsidy for its solid-waste and recycling programs. The county also could save the greenhouse gas equivalent of the annual exhaust from 9,000 cars and the energy equivalent of powering 3,400 homes.

Recycling and garbage are services that come with a cost, and common sense says that they should be priced to reflect local governments' priorities. Recycling should be priced at a discount because it offers abundant social and economic benefits. Garbage should be priced with a surcharge because of its costs to society.

It is a choice to have a stagnant recycling rate. It is a choice to ignore the accomplishments of thousands of cities, towns and counties and to ignore the long-term needs of residents, businesses and the environment. But it is not a choice that I would encourage communities to make when such a powerful and effective alternative is easily at hand.