In my community (Quincy, Massachusetts) we have a traditional residential waste curbside pickup program. You put your non-recyclable wastes into one can, and all of your recyclables into another (single stream!), and they pick them up once a week.
No dump deliveries to worry about. No recyclables sorting involved. Seems fabulous, right?
But as a household that composts more than 90%* of our food waste (we eat predominately vegetarian so it is easy to achieve this rate), this model increasingly bothers me.
As gardeners, we appreciate the value of the compost we generate, especially because it’s so easy and far cheaper than what’s available in retail, and that’s ultimately the reason we bother to do it. But from a “fairness” standpoint the curbside waste removal system in my city is undeniably inequitable. Every week I sense this as I look around and see what others leave out on trash day. I am bothered that our taxes (as in my husband and me) are supporting the more laissez faire attitudes of others. Why should we have to financially underwrite someone else’s wasteful lifestyle? Which, by not having a “pay as you throw” waste removal system, is what we are essentially doing.
Here’s what I mean. According to the Quincy Public Works Department, the “trash [picked up from residents] is weighed and the city is billed for its disposal.” In fiscal 2011, the City’s taxpayers—and I’m one of them!—paid $2,675,272 for trash disposal. Obviously they are not weighing the trash outside of each individual home as they pick it up (but someone correct me if I’m wrong!). Instead, the City figures out how much tonnage they will have to pay to discard, and then assess it to us taxpayers with some algorithm and charges a flat fee. According to the MassDEP 2011 Municipal Solid Waste & Recycling Survey Responses (which appears to be based on the calendar year of 2011), Quincy residents (or at least the 32,500 households that participate in curbside pickup) threw away 29,720 tons of trash (including bulky items) in 2011. It is unspecified how much of that consisted of food waste, but according to RecyclingWorks (using MassDEP data) the typical amount of food waste found in all municipal solid waste (MSW) is around 15% in Massachusetts. So, using that as a benchmark, Quincy’s trash consisted of approximately 4,400 tons of food waste.
Except that my trash largely didn’t consist of food waste. Yet, as a taxpayer, I get charged for that overall tonnage whether or not I actually put food waste into my trash barrel. The PWD website indicates that the current rate charged for disposal is $93.57 per ton. I honestly have not been able to figure out our exact household contribution to the waste bill, though I’m sure we’re not exactly sparing the City tons of food waste by composting in our humble little household of three people. But it still drives me nuts that I am expected to help pay for food waste removal when I am not part of that specific problem.
It got me to wondering whether there are any residential composting credits being used across the U.S. I was unable to find anything meaningful after about an hour of searching. I did find a few communities who will give you a rebate or offer a discount if you purchase your compost bin through them, but that is a one-time benefit.
Not surprisingly, Seattle, which is notably admirable in its green policies and practices in many areas, has a bit to offer in the way of composting credits, like this limited program (which is only open to properties with five or more units), and the option of requesting an exemption if your household does not participate in the citywide composting program because of on-site composting. But Seattle’s program is clearly in the minority at the present time. Not to mention, the kind of yearly tax credit I envision seems like a logistical, report-filing nightmare if there were to be forms that had to be filed or inspections from municipal authorities. I think that initiating municipally-run curbside composting programs are likely big hurdles in the current economic climate, and that’s not really the focus of this post (though I have covered it briefly in the past here).
So what instead? I think it is high time that more communities, in lieu of offering home composters like me some kind of tax credit for our efforts at reducing the amount of solid waste, implement “Pay As You Throw” (PAYT) trash pick up programs. I think it would be far more equitable, and, ideally, show people just how much they are throwing away when there might be alternative options. MassDEP’s Massachusetts 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan (dated April 2013) fully supports this approach—just take a look Section 3.2 (page 29) and at Figure 6 and you’ll see what I mean. Only about 24% of Massachusetts communities have a PAYT system at this time. Though I certainly don’t expect every property owner to compost on-site (given that many have no need for the black gold that results), the PAYT seems to be the “next best option” and the kind of market-based adjustment that might push people to more sustainable lifestyles. Until we can get some kind of financial credit for our meager efforts at minimizing land use impacts, it’s time that more “green” constituents like me push for these kinds of programs in our communities and redirect the financial burden where it makes more equitable sense.
* Our compost rate used to be virtually 100%, but last summer we found out—the hard way—that rats are attracted to things like cooked pasta and stale crackers in the compost bin, and they like to live near the compost bin. Near as in burrowed into the granite foundation of our house, which is inevitably and unavoidably close to the compost bin considering we live on a quarter of an acre. One of the hazards of urban living, I suppose. So now we only feed our compost bin vegetables and fruits (peels, pits, stems, etc.), eggshells, coffee grounds, dryer lint and a few other things. But still, it’s quite a bit of waste that we could otherwise just toss into the trash.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Kristen M. Ploetz and Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved.