Should city toss pay-as-you-throw?

There are things in life that are simple. Garbage is one of them.

In Charlotte, you have a green rolling bin and a gray rolling bin. (Your colors may vary.) One bin is for recycles. One bin is for the rest of your garbage. You fill these up. You take them to the street. You take them back empty.

For this service, you pay taxes. It’s not only simple; it’s one of the most basic, mutually beneficial transactions we have with government. While we get our garbage taken away, the city provides a public health benefit for all.

But now, Charlotte is considering a more complicated and potentially costly alternative – a “pay as you throw” method to garbage collection in which residents are charged based on how much waste they produce.

There are different ways to do “pay as you throw.” One allows customers to purchase different sizes of trash bins, then pay a monthly fee based on the bin they choose. In Austin, Texas, that monthly fee ranges from $15.30 a month for a 24-gallon container to $40.15 for a 96-gallon container. In Seattle, the 96-gallon bin – the same that’s used in Charlotte now – costs a whopping $93.15 a month.

Another “pay as you throw” option – advocated by Raleigh firm Waste Zero – requires residents to purchase special garbage bags from the city or at stores. A camera mounted on the back of garbage trucks peers into bins as they’re being dumped to make sure you’re not cheating the system and using unauthorized bags.

If all of that sounds rather harsh, well, yes. Proponents of “pay as you throw” say that serves a greater good of encouraging recycling. Studies show it works – people throw away less and recycle more when their city or town adopts such a program.

But that greater good may come with a greater cost, be it the monthly charge for bins or the non-fixed cost of city-approved garbage bags. Charlotte residents currently pay for garbage collection through property taxes and a solid waste collection fee. Would there be a corresponding decrease in property taxes or fees to make up for the “pay as you throw” costs? City Manager Ron Carlee told the Observer this week there would be “offsets” for residents, but he didn’t say the program would be revenue-neutral.

That means that Charlotteans might have to pay for being better garbage producers. If the price tag reaches hundreds of dollars more a year, that’s a burden for many and an expensive, regressive garbage fee for low-income residents.

The city’s Solid Waste Services department will make a “pay as you throw” recommendation to the City Council in May. Any plan that comes before the council should be very close to revenue-neutral.

If more recycling is the goal, the city also should study the costs and benefits of increasing the frequency of recyclables collection. It could be a simpler improvement to a simple service – and one that won’t leave Charlotteans holding their nose.