What’s Your Trash Costing You?

Tiverton Landfill, Matthew Sanderson“Human society sustains itself by transforming nature into garbage.”
~ Mason Cooley

Up until last week, no one in my suburban New England town of 15,000 or so ever really gave much thought to what went into their trash barrel each week. Last week, all that changed with the introduction of a ”Pay As You Throw” (PAYT)  program.

For those not familiar with PAYT, it’s a growing trend in municipal waste management whereby residents must purchase (for a small fee) town/city-branded trash bags and place all their waste in there. If you don’t have your trash in a branded bag it doesn’t get picked up. Typically, PAYT programs go hand-in-hand with a robust recycling program playing wing-man.

Why Implement a PAYT Program?

The reasons are many. For our community, we have the only municipal landfill in the state of Rhode Island (all other communities have their waste hauled to a massive central landfill in the north part of the state). Our landfill is near capacity and our town coffers nowhere near the level they need to be to cover the cost of capping the landfill.

So, after years of (heated, New-England-Yankee-style) debate, we’ve implemented PAYT to both extend the life of our landfill (through more aggressive recycling) and raise the capital necessary to eventually cap it. Each town-branded bag costs us $1.00 and the town expects to raise around $8,500 per week in bag sales.

Reactions run the gamut: From those who decry it as a tax wolf in sheep’s clothing (another “tax” on top of the taxes we already pay for basic waste removal) to those who praise it as a behavior change lever in which to pull to curb our wasteful ways. While I am not condoning the budgetary planning (or lack thereof) that created the fiscal imperative for PAYT, I do consider myself in the latter camp of support.

Shining a Spotlight on Our Wasteful Ways

No matter what your reaction, what is for sure is that everyone in our town is (or should be!) taking a critical look at what they are consuming and tossing out each week. A buck a bag can add up quickly. So far, we have had two bags per week, with one of those being full of disposable diapers for our youngest. (And yes, right there is full transparency for you; disposable diapers are a literal and figurative stain on my eco-being-ness.)

According to the Clean Air Council, the average American tosses 4.5 pounds of waste per day with only about a third of that being recycled or composted. I guess I am overly optimistic that PAYT will open many an eye across my town, causing people to pause and think about how to generate less waste. To think about what it means to consume — the natural resources, the lifestyles, the culture — and what is really at stake in both the short- and long-term. Heck, I’m even hopeful that many will take concrete steps to generate less waste altogether.

Eight Ways to Decrease the 4.5

In my latest bi-weekly column in my local paper, I offered up eight ways to consume less and generate less waste:

  1. Learn the Facts

. Municipalities across the country have been implementing PAYT programs with success. The U.S. EPA has a great website with all the ins and outs. Want some jaw-dropping statistics about America’s wasteful ways? Check out the Waste Facts at the Clean Air Council’s website.
  2. Buy Less. The less you have, the less you have to figure out how to throw away. Take the opportunity to start doing more with less, differentiating between ‘need’ and ‘want’, and reducing all that clutter in your life. Need some motivation? Watch any of the films at the Story of Stuff.
  3. Use Re-usable Stuff
. Get your self a re-usable coffee mug and water bottle (and use them). Invest in a good set of food storage containers so you’re not using plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Substitute paper napkins with cloth ones. Replace paper towels with cloth baby diapers. If you get creative, there’s no stopping what you can repurpose and re-use.
  4. Get on the Freecycle Bandwagon. For all that stuff that is still in good shape and could use a second life with someone else there is freecycling. We are signed up with our local Yahoo! Freecycle Group and a passing stuff on all the time. With thousands of area people using it, you’re bound to find someone who wants your stuff. 
Find your local group at the Freecycle website.
  5. Pre-Cycle. When you shop, look for minimal packaging and then any packaging that can be recycled. And remember that buying in bulk can also cut down on the amount of packaging you consume.
  6. Start a Compost Pile
. Around twenty-five percent of household waste is organic material (e.g., vegetable and non-meat food scraps, lawn and garden clippings) and can be composted. The whole brown-and-green-layering thing couldn’t be easier and the end result (compost) is the best thing you could ever put in your garden. We’ve been maintaining a two-pile system for years now. Check out this great composting resource from the University of Rhode Island to learn more.
  7. Seize the Teachable Moment with Your Kids. If you haven’t already given your kids the Stuff 101 and Recycling 101 classes, now is the time. Our experience is that the sooner you show kids how to consume less, separate recyclables from trash, and tell them why we do it, the sooner they will be helping you without your asking. Make a game out it. Fun stuff rocks.
  8. Get to Know Your Neighbors. Not so long ago, we actually talked with our neighbors. That led to all sorts of great things: From borrowing a cup of sugar to lending a hand with the kids to keeping an eye on each other’s house when you weren’t around. Neighbors use to let each other borrow things big and small. History could repeat itself here. Remember the magic equation: Borrow More = Buy Less = Throw Less Out.

So what’s your trash costing you? What are some steps you’re taking to consume less and generate less waste?

Be well,

Thanks for stopping by. While you’re here you might also enjoy these posts:

[image: Matthew Sanderson, Tiverton Patch]

11 Responses to “What’s Your Trash Costing You?”
  1. Rob says:

    Nice post. As you have said previously, there is no “away.” Water and waste are tricky topics to deal with via policy, because people have complicated relationships with them. The economics of waste and water are not represented by what consumers actually pay for those resources. Your community seems to have successfully implemented a cutting-edge policy, which is no gimme. I hold out hope that RI will implement state-wide composting in the near future. In any rate, as a Rhode Islander, you should be proud, we were one of the first states to offer curbside recycling.

  2. Robin Easton says:

    Dear Bill,

    This is a FABULOUS post. I was riveted. I LOVE it and your suggestions here; they are GREAT! I think it is wonderful what is happening in your area. It really makes us all look at what we are buying. We have to buy less packaged food. Buy bulk, and take cloth bags, to the store, and not only the large canvas bags to carry out our food, but must NOT use the smaller clear plastic bags to put produce in.

    All these issues are things my husband and I are looking at more and more all the time. Ways to cut out the trash. Sadly, in our area it gets harder and harder to find health food stores that sell food in bulk, where we can take our own bags and containers and refill them each time. It’s almost impossible. I find that horrible when they are health food stores. Even in the health food stores here, it get harder to buy un-packaged produce.

    We do grow our own garden through spring, summer, and fall, which drastically cuts back on packaging and waste.When we go into stores we never take plastic bags, but that is only a tiny portion of it, there is all the packaging and plastic that electronic parts come packaged and double paged in. Things like computer hard drives, cords, quick drives, and so on.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a small film at some point, which documents all the “stuff”
    that comes into a home, and then ways to not LET it into the home/or not buy it. It was easy to live on so cleanly in the rainforest. I had almost no waste at all, and used the same jar, container or bag for YEARS. Made all food from scratch. But it’s a bit more challenging in urban areas. So we have to be more creative. Slow life down. Return to basic values. We probably have a 1/6 or less the trash of our neighbors, but it is STILL way too much.

    Some companies like “Seventh Generation” are making compostable, 100% non toxic dryer sheets, and other products that can go directly into your compost pile. I know it is more work and does use more water, which is a huge consideration here in NM, but could you use cloth diapers? My mom used to flush the bulk of the “poo” down the toilet, and then put the wet diapers through the washing machine. Not sure about all the considerations on this……

    Another thing, have you and your wife tried shampooing with baking soda? My friend Lynn Fang did a great post on that. I use baking soda. It does come in a cardboard box, but I get it from a health food store and the box is non-toxic/compostable. And it lasts a long time, and gets hair cleaner than ever. Some friends clean their hair with just water, especially easy if it’s short. I am going to try that even though mine is long.

    You probably know all this already, so forgive my overzealous response. But I am just SO excited about this post. And it hits right into what I’ve been thinking a LOT about lately. It’s almost like we all need an in depth manual on how to cut down our trash. We need to remember what is REALLY important. We need to remember that our survival depends on how aware we are. Awareness = Survival for ANY species. We have fallen asleep and live in lassitude, in a nest full of our own poop. :)

    What we all do now determines what kind of future your beautiful children have, what kind of future ALL the children have. We MUST care. We MUST wake up. If nothing else we owe it to the children, and all other species of life. Thank you SO MUCH for all the good work you do here, dear Bill. I just love it. You are a deeply caring AND wise soul. . Hugs to you and yours Bill. Robin

  3. Jennifer says:

    I would totally be up for a PAYT in my area. Even in my complex, plenty of people don’t bother recycling before pitching everything into the massive dumpsters, which are always full by the time they are collected each week. Why should we get to fill up landfills and pollute the planet with impunity? If people had to pay for plastic bags AND to throw them out later, I think they’d be more careful about taking them in the first place. Maybe consumers would start heckling more corporations about better (less) packaging or buying fewer packaged goods if we all had to pay to throw bags of garbage away.

    Ideally, we would arrive at eco-conscious decisions through thoughtful introspection, but I have no problem with using more selfish motivations to create positive change. :-)

  4. Jasmine says:

    Just as a concept, forgetting the ‘hidden’ reasons for it, I think PAYT is an excellent idea. However, I also think it should be more expensive for supermarkets and big chains to dispose of waste than us – the ball is in their court. If I am on a low budget and I want to purchase a supermarket’s products [this scenario is millions of people] then I am stuck with their non-recyclable rubbish. It is THEIR responsibility and they could change it to recyclable, or eliminate it.

    Secondly, whenever I have read debates about PAYT, it has been clear that fly-tipping would increase. Equally, if there are public bins, say, in the park, what is to stop people cramming their home-waste in those? Or leaving non-council bags next to those bins? No clearing those would cause pest and other problems.

    It makes me think that we really have to tackle not only the culture and the individual, but more importantly – the corporations.

  5. Brian says:

    I am hoping Newport does the same thing when full recycling (1-6 or 7) takes affect next year (mandatory by law). Between what we compost and what we will then be able to recycle, we produce less than a bag of waste for a family of five.

    It really is the only way to make many take it seriously. Of course, some people won’t care and will just pay it.

  6. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Robin // So sorry for the delay in responding. Somehow, the comments to this post went under my radar. Glad you enjoyed it. Some people embrace PAYT, others do not, feeling it’s yet another tax on an over-taxed community. But what you’re calling out — that raising the awareness of what we consume and then “throw away” — I believe — is an important step towards enabling that proverbial light bulb to go off for many. Time will tell if such epiphanies make their way through a suburban New England town.

    I often think about how we (the collective Western society) might re-engineer and re-architect our everyday systems and processes to enable these changes in consumer behavior to take root and flourish. It almost seems daunting to think about what it would take. Could enough consumer pressure drive those changes? Do we need more environmentally-conscious people to enter the small business world to shape things from the ground up? Perhaps we need both… or something else entirely.

    Lynn and I go way back. :) I love her zeal and practicality. I don’t shampoo with baking soda, but do a fair amount of my cleaning with a combination of baking soda and vinegar. I’ve experimented off and on with homemade laundry detergent and dish washing powder. When you can buy these key (and basic!) ingredients in bulk in goes a long way towards saving money and leaving less of an impact.

    I do hope our paths cross one day, Robin, and we can meet in person. You are truly an inspiration on so many fronts!

  7. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Jennifer // Sorry for the delay in responding! I think many communities will eventually face the problem of where to get rid of their trash. Landfill space is finite. Even now, many communities ship their waste to other places simply because there is no where to put it. Further, your comment made me think of two things:

    1) Hitting people in the wallet often appears as one of the only ways to get people to change behavior. Why are we quick to change behavior because of a negative reinforcement and not because of some proactive altruistic reason? It reminds me of the often heard argument about switching from a Income Tax to a Consumption Tax.

    2) We’re doing an analysis of our paper usage at work as part of our Green Team efforts. The amount of paper we purchase makes me cringe; what puts salt in that wound is then seeing the volume of paper that is being recycled. My question: If so much is being recycled, why are we printing stuff in the first place?

    Hope all is well with you!

  8. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Jasmine // Apologies for the delay in responding. You bring up some good points. I might push it further — should it be the retailers or the manufacturers? We recently purchased a toy truck for our youngest’s birthday. How surprised were we when the only part of the packaging that couldn’t be recycled was one tiny little plastic tie wrap. Nothing else! What a difference from so many other things that come with gobs of excess packaging!

    On your second point, we’ve seen some of that happening around town already. I’ll be really concerned if we start seeing bags showing up on the sides of all our (wooded) roads. Time will tell.

    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing. I appreciate it! Be well.

  9. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Brian // I didn’t know Newport was considering PAYT. It took several years for Tiverton to work through all the discussion and logistics just to get it to a point of voting on it. Thank goodness for the expanded recycling. It’s been a long time coming. I remember when I moved back to the New England area after college and lived on the outskirts of Boston. We could recycle everything — even styrofoam. When we moved back to RI a few years later, it was such a shock to have to deal with Rhode Island Resource Recovery.

    I hold out hope that we can really change behaviors through such levers. Sad we have to get to the point of penalizing people, but hitting folks in their wallet leads to all kinds of things.

    Thanks for stopping by. Be well.

  10. Robin Easton says:

    Dear Bill, I was so touched that you lets us know via Twitter what was happening because I LOVE your replies here to all of us. You are so wise and can see many aspects to a situation. That is a HIGHLY prized skill that is MUCH needed in the world right now. You are one of these people who can look at a situation from many angles. I find that fascinating. Although I am TOTALLY open to people who can do that and THRIVE on it, I am not always as good at. The way you are expands my overview of any situation you write about here. I am sooooooooo grateful for that.

    AN ASIDE: Just spent the morning in my garden, and do you know what is so cool for me, aside from just being “with” the plants? I had to do some “weeding” this morning, but I should really call it “thinning”, as I know almost ALL of the so called “weeds”, and 90% of them are edible!! I just LOVE that. So I pull them out, clean them, take them in, put them in the fridge for salads. LOLOL!! :) FREE FOOD — Yippee!! Then my “planted” greens come up and I eat them as well. Just soooo COOL!!

    Thank you for ALL your kindness, and I truly thank you for who you are choosing to be in the world, during these times. You are SO needed. Never doubt it. Also was happy to hear that you already know Lynn. Both of you are GREAT inspirations in my life. Bless you, Bill. R

  11. Lynn Fang says:

    Hey Bill, a PAYT system sounds like a great idea! But another tax is another tax that no one wants. If your town had the funding, you could build a methane capture power plant on top of the landfill. I only heard about this because Interface, the sustainable carpet company, helped a local landfill build a methane plant to reduce the size of their landfill, so now it’s not full anymore and the greenhouse gas is kept from going into the atmosphere. Of course, that’s a capital-intensive project. Does your town have a composting service? That would significantly reduce the amount of waste going into landfill.