Would the invisible hand do a better job of collecting LM's garbage?
This Wednesday (7/8), the Public Works Committee of the Board of Commissioners will begin deliberations on changes to the policy for collecting refuse and recycling in Lower Merion Township. The discussion will center on rear yard versus curbside, and manual versus automated collection, but incentives should also be part of the discussion.
Twenty percent of the sanitation budget in Lower Merion is spent on refuse disposal costs, which are billed per ton. Unfortunately, the residential fee structure does nothing to incentivise residents to reduce the amount of refuse that they produce. If anything, it does the opposite. Solid waste disposal in LM is billed per unit volume (container), but the cost actually decreases as the number of containers increases ($192/container for 1; $131/container for 2; $107/container for 3; $80/container for 4; and $64/container for 5), which encourages residents to maintain (and fill) more containers, and therefore generate more solid waste. Based on the number of subscribers at each level, the average cost is about $130/container. Subscribers with a single container are paying 50% more per container than this average, while subscribers with 5 containers are paying half the average container cost. In other words, residents who are generating the least waste (and therefore costing the township the least money) are subsidizing the wasteful practices of residents who are generating the most waste and costing the township the most money. That doesn't make any sense at all.
So-called "pay as you throw" (PAYT) systems have a fee structure whereby costs per container scale linearly to reward residents who reduce their waste stream. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/tools/payt/index.htm), this approach results in substantial reductions in solid waste volume.
Currently, a lot of organic waste that could readily be composted ends up in the garbage. That's unfortunate because it's heavy. PAYT would create an incentive for residents to explore composting, worm boxes and other creative, environmentally friendly methods to reduce their waste stream, which would generate savings for the township and benefits for the environment.
Single-stream recycling got short shrift in the township's presentation to the BoC on May 18th (http://www.lowermerion.org/Index.aspx?page=926). The discussion of the disadvantages of single stream recycling is misleading because reduced recycling revenue per ton is highlighted in the first bullet point but also included in the cost calculation (slide 6). Considering that single stream recycling invariably leads to increased participation (>50% increase in Denver (www.thinkgreen.com/single-stream-recycling) and >90% increase in Cherry Hill (Inquirer, 6/30/08)), single stream recycling may actually result in increased overall recycling revenue despite a lower price per ton (for example, Cherry Hill realized an annual increase in recycling revenue in excess of $400,000 (ibid)). Single stream recycling increases the range of materials that are eligible for recycling and also cuts the number of containers in half, which would save the township $800,000. Adding financial incentives based on the amount of recycled material (see www.recyclebank.com) would encourage even greater participation. Lower Merion's recycling performance has exceeded Act 101 statutory requirements so far, but there is substantial room for improvement, and any material that ends up in recycling produces a double benefit for the township by reducing disposal fees and generating recycling revenue.
Incentive-based single-stream recycling makes use of automated collection vehicles that weigh and record the amount of material in each bar-coded receptacle. This system might even enable solid waste collection fees based on weight rather than volume, which could result in even greater reductions in solid waste, but weight-based fee structures are relatively rare. Coupling incentive-driven recycling and PAYT or weight-based solid waste disposal fees would create a productive cycle whereby residents would be rewarded for decreasing their solid waste and increasing their recycling. This approach would benefit residents, the township and the environment.
The need to replace our sanitation fleet creates an opportunity to reshape the way we think about solid waste disposal, recycling and environmental impact in Lower Merion Township. Collection method and location are a good starting point, but the real discussion should focus on ways to incentivise LM residents to decrease their "garbage footprint" by reducing their waste stream and increasing their recycling rate.