Unit-based pricing, also known as pay-as-you-throw, offers the most effective means to reduce waste and increase recycling–even in cities and towns that have taken other steps to cut their trash, such as single-stream recycling, automated carts, collection of additional materials, and education and outreach. It is important to note that there are many different types of pay-as-you-throw, and they are not all equally effective. In fact, currently only two of the PAYT types (carts and bags [with or without automated collection]) are generally even actively considered by communities considering pay-as-you-throw. The information below can help municipalities assess the options and determine which one best suits their needs.

Cash-Based Systems

Definition:

  • Residents pay a set fee in cash for every bag they dispose of at a convenience center or transfer station. Less common than in the past, but some programs are still in use, especially in rural areas.

Benefits:

  • Creates an incentive to reduce waste by providing a link between waste-generating behavior and cost

Considerations:

  • Suitable for dropoff only (does not work with curbside collection)
  • Generally less convenient for residents than curbside collection
  • Potential risk of fraud and theft, as attendants must handle cash

Waste Reduction Observations:

  • Varies widely, but can be as high as 30%

Variable-Rate Carts

Definition:

  • Residents choose from among different sizes of carts, paying more for the larger carts and less for the smaller ones.

Benefits:

  • More effective than maintaining a flat-fee system
  • Perceived as more equitable than a flat fee

Considerations:

  • Limited behavior change, because residents often select the cart that matches current habits
  • Low impact on reducing waste and increasing recycling
  • Less closely tied to the quantity of waste disposed than bag and tag/sticker options
  • Significant up-front costs (purchasing and delivering carts)
  • Ongoing cost of cart maintenance
  • Administrative complexity (frequent billing, multiple price structures)
  • Limited flexibility for residents who need to switch between cart sizes
  • Sometimes, a PAYT bag or sticker option is used to supplement variable-rate carts in order to address the issue of higher than normal (overflow) waste generation (primarily an issue with smaller carts)

Waste Reduction Observations:

  • The effectiveness of VRC programs in different communities can vary widely, depending on cart pricing structure and other factors. The more effective programs have a price differential between cart sizes that is significant enough to incentivize households to reduce waste enough to warrant a less costly option. If pricing differentials are not significant, many households may opt for the larger cart “just in case,” and are then not incentivized financially to reduce the amount of waste disposed.
  • While data on VRC programs’ effectiveness is scarce, a 2010 report from SCS Engineers to the city of Springfield, Mass., estimated a reduction of 15%.

Stickers/Tags

Definition:

  • Residents pay by the bag by affixing a pre-paid tag or sticker to each bag of trash. Very few communities adopting pay-as-you-throw systems now opt for stickers or tags, although some use this method for occasional cart overflow or bulky item setouts.

Benefits:

  • Creates an incentive to reduce waste by providing a link between waste-generating behavior and cost
  • Does change behavior, reducing waste and increasing recycling
  • Perceived as more equitable than a flat fee
  • No billing system to administer
  • Inexpensive to implement

Considerations:

  • Increased potential for fraud, as tags and stickers are more susceptible to counterfeiting, theft, and non-compliance
  • Incompatible with automated cart collection (because tags and stickers are difficult to see when materials are tipped)
  • Requires significant monitoring and enforcement action from haulers, which can slow down collection
  • Can cause injury to collection workers, as some residents overstuff large contractor bags
  • Potentially less equitable, if some residents use larger or untagged bags
  • Pricing structure may need to be assessed and adjusted periodically

Waste Reduction Observations:

  • Typically 5% to 20% (30% to 40% in rare situations)

Bag-Based Pay-as-You-Throw

Definition:

  • Residents dispose of their waste in specialized bags approved by the city or town and clearly marked with the municipal seal or other unique instructions/information; collection can be either with automated pickup or by hand.

Benefits:

  • Perceived as more equitable than a flat fee
  • Creates an incentive to reduce waste by providing a direct link between waste-generating behavior and cost
  • Provides significant waste reduction and increases in recycling
  • Highly flexible–works with automated or manual collection, and can offer multiple bag sizes/prices
  • Easy to enforce and not prone to cheating
  • Convenient for residents
  • Inexpensive to implement (cart purchase not necessary)

Considerations:

  • Need for education and outreach
  • Need for appropriate program design (pricing, bag sizes, bag distribution strategy)
  • Requires increased monitoring and enforcement action
  • Pricing structure may need to be assessed and adjusted periodically

Waste Reduction Observations:

  • 40%-50% or more, depending on how the program is designed and managed

This graphic provides a summary of the relative attributes of the different types of pay-as-you-throw:

CS 4-27

Harvey Balls Graphic

The graphic below, which compares how many pounds per person different communities dispose of each year, demonstrates just how widely the different types of pay-as-you-throw can vary in terms of effectiveness: