Government-provided, "free" garbage collection, a solution to the urban muck of the 19th century, has created a new problem: ever larger heaps of trash at the curb. When households do not pay for garbage pickup according to how much trash they generate, they have little incentive to reduce their waste.
This simple fact helps to explain the waste-management problems facing many localities. In a 1990 survey of 246 U.S. cities, more than two-thirds of respondents said they paid for waste collection through local tax revenue or flat fees, allowing people to dump all they wanted at no extra cost.
That may be changing. A forthcoming Reason Foundation study finds that "pay-as-you-throw" systems are on the rise. Just a year ago, about 200 cities nationwide had adopted schemes in which households paid for waste service based on how much trash they put out. By 1993, the number of "pay-as-you-throw" systems had climbed to at least 1,000. Another 800 communities plan to introduce variable rates this year.
Lisa Skumatz, author of the study, writes that "communities that implement variable rates in conjunction with recycling programs have routinely reported between a 24 and 45 percent reduction in waste tonnage going to disposal facilities." The absolute number of trash bags or cans set out for collection also drops, sometimes precipitously.
Skumatz cites the village of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, which "noted a decline from an average of 3.1 units set out to 1.3." In some instances, such declines have led to reductions in the waste bills of consumers, even with the additional expense of recycling programs.
Some communities report that a few residents have responded to the new payment system by leaving household trash on roadsides or carting it to commercial dumpsters. But Skumatz concludes that the illegal-dumping problem is relatively small and easy to manage.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Pay as You Throw".