Save Money and Reduce Trash

As trash gets more and more expensive to handle, the problems with our current trash pricing at the Transfer and Recycling Station have become more clear. Lowering the transfer station sticker price and instead charging for trash by the bag would lower costs for most users, increase recycling, and reduce the amount of trash we throw away.

Ken Henderson and Allen Nitschelm have started a conversation about trash pricing at the Transfer Station (here, here, and here). Both have taken a somewhat negative attitude toward this possible change, so I thought I might add some information and balance to the discussion of a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) system, also called a SMART program (Save Money and Reduce Trash).

Trash is increasingly expensive to “dispose of.” Nearby landfills are closing up, incineration is more costly than it used to be, and remaining landfills are farther away and becoming more expensive to use, as land prices go up and health and safety requirements increase. Ten years ago, a regular Transfer Station sticker cost $70; that same sticker now costs $210. The cost of operating the Transfer Station is dominated by the cost of trash disposal, which — between the tipping fee paid to the trash vendor, and the material and labor costs of pushing it around the Transfer Station — now costs the town nearly $100 per ton. Recycling, on the other hand, is nearly a net free operation, with some materials making money, and some costing money. The town has a powerful incentive to reduce trash and increase recycling, but currently, individual Transfer Station users do not. The current fixed-fee system provides no way to pass on savings from reduced trash and increased recycling to us Transfer Station users.

That's why a per-bag system makes so much economic sense. Transfer Station users would save money each time they used one fewer bag for trash, and recycling would be free. In other towns, users find many easy ways to reduce their trash once they are paying by the bag: they compost more, buy goods with less packaging, reuse or give away stuff they no longer need instead of throwing it away, get much better at identifying what is recyclable, etc. A small financial incentive goes a long way.

This would bring our relationship to our trash service in line with how we regard other goods or services, such as electricity, gas, oil, water, or food. We expect to pay more when we use more. The problem with our current trash pricing system is that it socializes the cost of trash so that no one household has any incentive to throw away less.

More than 100 towns in Massachusetts now have volume pricing for trash, so there are plenty of data about how this works. Trash volumes drop dramatically and for a long time. Once users are used to the new system, they like the system: they think it's fair, and they like having control over their costs. Here's a link to the survey data. Getting the bags is easy: just like now, people would buy their bags at local stores. The bags are more expensive than regular trash bags, because they represent not only the actual bags, but also, the cost of disposing of the trash. Dumping in public areas has not been a problem: there are many easier (and legal) ways to reduce trash loads. The annual sticker fee goes way down because those fees have to cover only the fixed costs of running the transfer station.

In Acton, the Transfer Station Enterprise Fund covers the entire cost of Transfer Station operations, and is funded only by sticker fees. There is no Town budget line item (i.e., money that comes out of the general fund) to cover the trash operation at the Transfer Station. The reduced volume of trash (as a result of the per-bag pricing of a SMART PAYT program) causes the overall cost of the Transfer Station operation to go down; thus the average user also enjoys lower costs. There is a cost for the production and distribution of the bags, but in town after town, this cost is much less than the realized savings.

The increase in annual fees has started driving some users away: as the gap between Transfer Station fees and private pickup fees gets smaller, more people choose to switch to the convenience of curbside pickup. Switching to a system with lower average costs will keep more people using the Transfer Station, which will help ensure its continued operation. I like going to the transfer station, and I support changes that will keep it viable.

Ken mentions a concern that Town Manager Steve Ledoux wants to close the transfer station, and mentions the Home Depot issue. I want to remind readers that the Home Depot fiasco happened under former manager Don Johnson, not Steve Ledoux. Before he came to Acton, Steve Ledoux was the town manager in Sudbury and Williamstown. Sudbury and Williamstown shifted to Pay As You Throw systems while Steve was there, and both still have transfer stations.

In 2013, Williamstown averaged 766 pounds of trash per household at its transfer station; Sudbury averaged 1,263. That same year, Acton averaged a much-higher 1,918 pounds of trash per household. These dramatic differences between PAYT towns and non-PAYT towns are not isolated statistics. Of the towns bordering Acton that have released 2013 statistics, the two non-PAYT towns, Boxborough and Carlisle, averaged 1,605 and 2,193 pounds per household, respectively. Concord and Littleton, PAYT towns, averaged 1,490 and 1,336 respectively. (Concord has a curbside PAYT program; Littleton’s is a drop-off program). Statewide in 2013, residents of municipalities participating in PAYT programs averaged 500 pounds less trash per household than did residents of those towns that do not. For those who would like to look at the details, here's a link to the 2013 DEP data for municipal trash, and the 2012 DEP data.

Allen has raised the question of whether a curbside program would be more environmentally sound. I'm not sure, but I do know that the Transfer Station is well-liked by its users; if a curbside program meant the Transfer Station would close, I suspect we Transfer Station users would reject this idea.

A more-detailed discussion of the pros and cons of a trash pricing change for the Acton Transfer Station will need to wait until the Town announces some data about possible bag prices and sticker prices. In particular, it is important that the Town design this program so that seniors save money, on average, over the current system. Senior households are generally much smaller in size than the average Acton household, and generate less trash on average, so a well-designed trash pricing system will naturally have lower costs for seniors than for larger households. At Town Meeting, voters have continued to support any means possible to bring down the high cost of living in Acton for seniors. I think this is a wise move on the part of Acton voters. Keeping households in town after children graduate from the schools is key to Acton's ongoing financial and social health. It will be important that the new proposed program continue to support seniors, perhaps by supplying a coupon for a number of free bags with the purchase of a senior sticker and a lower annual fee.

I look forward to more discussion of this question. The best conversations will be before Town Meeting: once we get there, few minds will change in either direction. Let's keep talking trash.

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Comments

SENIOR FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE

I'm 74, my wife is 76. We have lived in Acton since 1972. We have put no children through any part of and public school system. We receive no financial benefits from the town save for getting a transfer station ticket at a reduced rate. Our weekly trash consists of ONE LARGE KITCHEN BAG and two containers of recyclables. Once every three months we add an additional trash bag of wood pieces from my workroom. How much trash does the average non senior family in Acton generate? Maybe the reduced transfer station rate we receive is too much. So work out the details, if you choose, and present me with a bill. I'll pay it promptly, as I do my $9,000+ property tax bill.

Is this a town where seniors are looked down upon and thought of as financial burdens because they get an annual benefit of $160. on a dump sticker? Folks, all of us seniors are paying our taxes and assisting in school drives for this and that as well as the Boy and Girl Scouts while making almost no demands on the Town of Acton. Where is the financial burden?

WE ARE STILL LIVING IN THE 1800s

In 2014 we are still driving in smog creating vehicles to a transfer station to discard the trash of daily living. On a given Saturday at the transfer station cars are backed onto Rte 2, awaiting a space. Does this make any sense? Absolutely not. On trips around the world I have not experienced people using an open trash area or a transfer station in any western nation. Paying for what you wish to discard makes a great deal of sense. Sitting in a running car for 30 minutes to discard trash makes no sense.

As for a "recycle area" for "reusable" products people no longer want, have you noticed the trash people leave as "reusable" at the transfer station? I can see the "reusable area" filling with junk in less than a month. Who is going to police this area and "clean" it out? More employees!

Wake up to 21st Century people. Using a transfer station consumes too much energy.

On increasing trash recycling in Acton

For the record, I am very much in favor of recycling trash as much as is reasonable, and am an early adopter. In the early 1970’s (first Earth Day!) I helped organize our town’s (New Providence, N.J.) first glass bottle recycling project, using a borrowed town dump truck and driving the crushed glass to Hoboken myself, where the recycler who bought the glass wagged his finger at me that “even one aluminum ring found on one bottle and I’ll reject the whole load!” (Back in the day there was a little ring of aluminum that remained on the bottle after unscrewing the cap and these needed to be cut off one at a time by the volunteers on Recycle Day). Now, it’s easy to recycle bottles and other objects (except for the plastic bubble-wrap with cardboard back, which my Dear Wife (DW) patiently separates so each part can go in its proper container).

That said, there are some concerns about Acton’s present recycling program among the current population of us TSUWRs (Transfer Station Users Who Recycle). The current town recycling center is easy and convenient to use, and so we are Very Surprised and sometimes Annoyed when, while dumping stuff in the recycling containers, we see large vehicles bypassing our recycling area entirely to speed directly to the transfer station. We suspect that many of these folks are NRTSUs (Non-Recycling Transfer Station Users). Grrr! So, putting aside for a moment the economic argument that my good friend Jim Snyder-Grant has made- isn’t reducing the number of NRTSUs the primary goal of PAYT? Isn’t that what this is really all about?

Back to the economics. May I assume that if PAYT is passed, that there will be no annual fees to use the transfer station, but rather that all the fees will now result from buying the bags to throw out our refuse? (citation needed) Assuming that the NRTSUs will only be motivated by economics, then placing all the cost of TS use on bag purchase and none on yearly sticker cost will have the maximum effect on NRTSU behavior. This means that buying bags for a household that does no recycling should cost at least as much as $210, the current yearly resident sticker cost. I have no idea the number of bags that an average NRTSU would need per week (citation needed), but let’s guess that it’s 8 bags/week, or about 400/year. Therefore, if bags are 2 per 1$, then the bag cost/year would be about the same as the current sticker registration. Being able to reduce TM fees (bag purchase) below the previous sticker cost might be enough of an incentive for some of these folks to change their habits and now recycle more, maybe reducing their bag/week use to, say, three. But this highlights a problem with our original bag cost plan for raising revenue. As folks reduce their amount of refuse, bag purchases would decline and eventually not be enough to cover all the current sticker receipts, and so we’d have to increase the bag cost to, say, $1 a bag. Before a PAYT proposal comes to a town meeting, it will be essential that the town have real numbers to make the case to transition to it .

How would our straw-man $1per bag cost work out for the older Acton resident (me for one- don’t forget 1970!- a long time ago). I suppose that if we ramped up our game in our home (don’t throw out the used cat litter, recycle all paper- even used napkins etc) we’d be at less than one bag/week (without knowing the size of the bag, I’m assuming it is about the same as a standard kitchen bag- about 30-35 liters). A giant- sized bag would be not be consistent with the goal of reducing non-recycled waste, since those who don’t produce much would either have to store the stuff for several weeks to fill one bag or take a cost hit and throw out a partially full bag on a weekly basis (not good for the economics). At one modest-sized bag per week, a small household would produce about $50/year in revenue, or about the same as a senior TS sticker now- so that works out for seniors, but wouldn’t cover the current sticker price for younger residents who also do not generate much trash. Presumably, someone who is now a diligent TSUWR should not see a cost increase as a result of PAYT-I hope this a goal for the program? (citation needed) If not, it should be, or else the program becomes non-economic and achieves any reduction in the non-recycling waste stream by additionally taxing diligent TSUWR folks. This doesn’t make sense and is not a good way to sustain a program like this.

An extremely crucial part of a comprehensive PAYT proposal includes spelling out how the system would be enforced fairly and perceived as such. At the present most times that I dump at the TS, there are no TS workers watching me. Human nature being what it is, it is unfortunately very likely that some of the NRTSU folks will continue to throw out refuse without using official PAYT bags. This would turn me and probably many other responsible users into DTSUWRs (Disgruntled TSUWRs) - so the town will need to be careful in making sure everyone is fairly using the new system and paying for their bags. Consistent enforcement is therefore very important and will really determine the effectiveness of reducing our non-recycled trash stream. The town will have to figure the cost of this enforcement into the total PAYT proposal. In my view, any proposal that doesn’t contain strong effective enforcement isn’t worth supporting.

As an aside, since 1990 there has been a Mass State Disposal Ban which prohibits discarding in either a landfill or by burning both Glass & Metal Containers and also Recyclable Paper, Cardboard & Paperboard. The problem simply is that it has not been enforced. Therefore, one modest proposal for Acton would be for the enforcement agent mentioned above to simply enforce this rule at the TS immediately. Residents who are in flagrant violation would get a ticket- a few hundred tickets at $50 each will work wonders in increasing recycling and reducing our non-recyclable waste stream while the town continues to use the more predictable and easier to use sticker process for TS revenue vs. starting an entire new PAYT system. The full time enforcement agent is already required for a realistic PAYT system, so simply doing enforcement with our current sticker system would be less costly (and probably more effective) than starting a whole new system. And even if the current state regulation was determined to not apply to Acton, wouldn’t it be much simpler to pass and enforce such a regulation to make Acton comply with the Mass rules?

But I digress. Now on to address some of the inconveniences of PAYT using purchased bags. Personally, I like to do a lot of projects around the house, and generate a fair amount of “non-garbage” refuse, such as bits of sheet rock, wood, empty paint cans, pieces of old insulation, flower pots, etc. It’s hard to stuff some of this material- lumpy things that are not recycled - into a modest sized bag (see above argument for a modest sized bag). And of course being economically motivated I would try to get as much as possible into the bag, which will probably result in its tearing. #@$%! An even more important inconvenience to this TSUWR is that my DW (mentioned above) has recently purchased an expensive kitchen refuse container which has Fitted Refuse Bags which she Very Much Likes (these bags fit tightly around the top of the container and so there are no ugly extra pieces of plastic sticking out around the lid- very neat!). (Note to Selectmen; please make sure that the bags chosen for PAYT are SimpleHuman brand, size R.)

Putting aside lightheartedness and getting serious for a moment, there are many little inconveniences such as these to users of PAYT, and even the dutiful TSUWR (rather, particularly that person, since he/she already is on board reducing the waste stream as much as he/she can) would have to weigh the inconveniences as less important than the overall good of a PAYT system before voting for it. Proponents also need to be very clear about what the goals of the program are, and given the back-of-the envelope numbers above the economic arguments alone don’t seem to be particularly compelling. In fact if realistic enforcement is factored in its hard to see how the new system could be less expensive than the current system, but maybe increased recycle volume could fund this enforcement person so that net user fees could remain the same.

So shouldn’t we be up front and simply say that we in Acton are primarily trying to reduce our burnable non-recyclable waste stream with PAYT while also trying to reduce/limit costs (see comments by my friend and neighbor Ken Henderson for suggestions) as much as possible? That story would probably be acceptable to many folks in town. Going down this path would also leave the town more flexibility to determine and charge actual costs without being bound by a proposal that relied entirely on reduced or level fees, so that if this didn’t come true, then backpedalling to the current system might be likely.

At the end of the day, there will probably be some cost for decreasing our non-recyclable waste stream, and we are hoping that this cost will be more or less offset by increased recycle revenue. Reducing our non-recycling waste stream while minimizing TS cost are goals both Jim and I and many others in town support. There are a number of ways to get there. Let’s have a discussion on which is best.

Bernie Kosicki

PAYT

I don't visit this site often and just noticed a question from Charlie about where are the line items that give preferential treatment for seniors.

I don't have the data readily available (but will be sure to flag it going forward), but there are several items in the Town budget where seniors get favorable treatment. In fact, I distinctly remember one such article at Town meeting many years ago where I stood up (and one other person did as well) in opposition to making age a condition of special financial treatment rather than the actual financial condition of the citizen. Needless to say, my position lost and the article was passed as written.

I know there are others because I have had arguments over coffee about these items when I notice them being proposed (consider it a pet peeve of mine). I just don't recall the specifics right now, and do not have the time to go searching for them.

Question for datarnijan

Other than the reduced fee for the transfer station sticker I am not aware of any "line items" that make an exception for seniors. Could you give me an example ?

CharlieAF

Survey data

An earlier version of this article was missing a link to the survey data of PAYT users. That link is http://www.mswmanagement.com/MSW/Articles/The_People_Speak_25996.aspx

Jim Snyder-Grant is a member of Green Acton - more at http://greenacton.org. More about me at http://snyder-grant.org/jim. Or - just contact me at 978 266-9409 or jimsg@newview.org

Trash Disposal

I am of the general view that users should pay for the services they use, and Jim Snyder-Grant's view on pay-as-you-throw is in general agreement with mine. I have not studied this issue in any detail, but am in favor of the general principle.

One thing I am in strong disagreement with, however, (and not just with Jim's comment above but with the general sentiment in Town about this), is the special exception made for seniors. Virtually every line item seems to create this exception. I don't understand the need to make age relevant to the situation. If we want to make an exception, let's do it for disposable income. Rich seniors should not be allowed to hide behind their age, while poor "juniors" end up subsidizing them.

If we make disposable income the criterion for subsidies (on a sliding scale), many seniors would undoubtedly qualify, but for a better reason. The same principle applies to every line item where the Town subsidizes its seniors. To use a hackneyed phrase, there is no reason why Warren Buffett should get a subsidy.

FINANCIAL AID FOR SENIORS

I find it cute people complain against senior financial benefits without mentioning one benefit we seniors receive save for the dump sticker. A benefit all residents of Acton can apply for is having their property taxes deferred based on financial need. A number of people look at this as a financial benefit which allows seniors to avoid property taxes. That thinking is far from the truth. Any home owner in Acton who meets very stringent financial criteria can be offered the option of deferring their property taxes. They are not relieved of having to pay property but to defer them until the property is sold. The amount owed to the town increases through interest so that the town does not lose any funds. Which is the next senior money saving benefit?