Have no fear: Pay-as-you-throw garbage system works

The news that the city of Charlotte is thinking about adopting the pay-as-you-throw model for solid waste has been met with questions by many members of the community.

Some people have asked if paying for trash by the bag will be too complicated. Some want to know if everybody will be able to afford a system that asks them to pay more for trash bags. Others express concern that the program will not be fair to all Charlotte residents. And still others wonder if it will lead people to dump their garbage on roadsides or in empty lots.

I am familiar with all of these questions because people also asked them in my city of Worcester, Mass., where I implemented a bag-based pay-as-you-throw program as Commissioner of Public Works and Parks in 1993. But now after 21 successful years of pay-as-you-throw in Worcester, I can say with confidence that pay-as-you-throw has been nothing but positive for my home city.

People in Worcester, a large and diverse city, were extremely skeptical before it began, and the debate over it was extremely contentious.

But a funny thing happened once the program began: it worked. People bought garbage bags at the store, just like before, and took them to the curb in a trash can once a week, just like before. They saw that the program did not hit their pocketbooks as much as they had feared, because recycling more and diverting waste in other ways meant that they were only throwing out an average of 1.2 large trash bags each week.

And they did not dump their waste in the streets or vacant lots, thanks to the ease of the program and a robust public education effort that explained how the city would address those who might try.

Our recycling rate jumped from 2 percent to 38 percent after the first week of the program. Within a few weeks, compliance hit nearly 100 percent. On streets where it had been common to see five or six trash bags piled up in front of each house on collection day, there were now just one or two bags per house.

Worcester has saved more than $25 million in waste disposal fees – money that we have been able to spend on other valuable municipal priorities instead of literally throwing it away.

Other cities with bag-based pay-as-you-throw programs report similarly high resident satisfaction and dramatic benefits like ours – and Charlotte could too. It is reasonable to raise questions about changes to a system as large, and personal, as trash. But in response to those questions, I can say from experience that pay-as-you-throw is simple, it is easy to take part in, and it could bring Charlotte tremendous financial and environmental benefits.