As Charlotte weighs a new proposal to charge residents for how much garbage they produce, many questions remain unanswered.
City officials have said the simplest method might be having different-sized rollout containers, with different prices for each.
Under this “pay as you throw” method, a resident would have the option of paying for the current 96-gallon container – or spending less and cramming their refuse into a container as small as 24 gallons.
But it’s unclear whether having smaller containers would achieve one of the city’s goals, which is for people to produce less trash by recycling more and composting.
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Anne Germain of the National Waste and Recycling Association in Washington, D.C., said a person living alone might choose a small container and a large family would likely pay more for a large container.
But they still might create the same amount of trash, she said.
“You can make the case that that’s not Pay as You Throw,” Germain said. “Once people pick their can size, there are no longer incentives to create less trash. You aren’t looking at your bill every month.”
There are other unanswered questions.
Would any new fee for trash containers be offset by a reduction in the general property tax?
Would a new flat fee hurt low-income families?
And if people would be limited by how much garbage they can produce, would they simply transfer some of that waste to their green recycling container, even if it isn’t recyclable?
The city’s Solid Waste Services department is studying the “pay as you throw” concept and plans to make a recommendation to the City Council in May. If the city recommends the idea, and council members endorse it, Solid Waste Services would then study the best way to implement it.
Germain said the idea is expanding nationwide, as landfills are reaching obsolescence and tighter environmental regulations have closed a number of old open-air dumps.
Seattle has different-priced trash containers. Austin, Texas, also charges residents for the size of their garbage container – 24, 32, 64 or 96 gallons. A 24-gallon container costs $15.30 a month; a 96-gallon bin is $40.15, according to the city’s website.
City Manager Ron Carlee and council member John Autry, who chairs the environmental committee, met with Austin officials this week about their Pay as You Throw system.
Earlier this year, a Raleigh firm, Waste Zero, met with city officials about its pay as you throw system.
Waste Zero, which collects trash in some smaller municipalities, such as Fall River, Mass., requires residents to place their garbage in special bags. The bags are purchased either from the city or at stores.
The bags are then placed inside the existing rollout containers, and a camera mounted on a garbage truck peers inside the containers as they are being unloaded to make sure refuse is bagged.
Waste Zero said its system helps change people’s habits and reduce waste. Because it’s more labor intensive to place trash in special bags, the company has said it makes people conscious of much they are throwing away – and how much they are spending.
But the city appears hesitant to embark on such a significant change.
Solid Waste Services officials have said charging residents for different-sized containers might be a more realistic approach.
Victoria Johnson, the city’s Solid Waste Services director, said residents could choose to keep their 96-gallon containers. If they wanted something smaller, they could request a new container and then be charged less.
Bob Gedert, who leads Austin’s Resource Recovery department, said there was some initial resistance among large families when the program was introduced in 1997. He said the program has been embraced, and the city recently introduced a new, smaller 24-gallon container two years ago.
Gedert said the concerns about people not adjusting their trash output once they pick a container size can be true.
“Trash in a single-family household goes up or down depending on special events, like a birthday party,” he said. “Some people gauge the size of their container based on the worst-case scenario.”
He added: “It’s true that people will experiment with sizes, and then they don’t change (their behavior) after that,” he said.
Charlotte’s garbage collection today is primarily funded from the general fund, which is mostly paid for by the property tax. Residents also pay a solid waste collection fee, which is designed to cover the disposal costs at the landfill near Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The city’s Solid Waste budget for this fiscal year is $48.7 million.
Of that, the solid-waste fee generates only $12.3 million. Single-family homes are billed $47 a year by the city and $15 for Mecklenburg County.
The rest comes from the general fund, which is primarily paid for by property taxes.
Charlotteans aren’t charged a specific fee for their carts, unless they need a second recycling cart or a second garbage cart. The cart costs $40.
If the city enacted a fee for a cart, it’s unclear whether the city would also cut the property tax rate.
“We haven’t gotten to that point,” said Victoria Johnson, the city’s Solid Waste Services director. “I’m not in the budget office.”
It’s possible the city could make Solid Waste Services an “enterprise fund,” which means it’s almost all funded through fees. The city’s water department, airport and transit system are enterprise funds.
City Council member Kenny Smith said he has overall concerns about the city switching to a new system, including the impact on taxes.
He said he’s concerned that the city would be tacking on a new fee on top of existing property taxes.
“It never seems to work out as revenue-neutral,” Smith said.
Having residents pay for the size of their container could arguably be fair. Someone living alone who produces little trash might pay less than a family of four people.
But a flat fee could also be regressive, hurting low-income residents.
Consider the case of two hypothetical families who produce the same amount of garbage. One is wealthy, the other poor.
In today’s system, the wealthy family may subsidize the trash collection for a low-income family by paying more money in property taxes.
Under a fee system, the families would pay the same amount.
Gedert, the Austin official, said moving from property taxes to a fee-based system can be regressive. He said he helped a number of Indiana municipalities move to “pay as you throw” two decades ago, but the change didn’t affect residents greatly because the changes occurred in small towns, where there wasn’t a large disparity in income.
Smith said he thinks the city should consider increasing recycling pickup to weekly instead of biweekly if it’s going to encourage less garbage.
Germain said when people have smaller trash containers, they may shift trash to recycling containers.
“We are trying to reduce the amount of contamination,” she said. “Something isn’t recycled until it’s recycled.”