Sitting on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, Austin, Texas, is known for its environmentally conscious population and progressive environmental policies. In the early 1990s, the capitol city of Texas initiated the first pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program — under which residents are charged for solid waste services based on the amount of trash they set aside for disposal — in the state. Austin also was one of the first major cities in the country to implement such a program.
Prior to the implementation of Austin's PAYT program, Texas had 493 landfills accepting waste; that number has decreased to 191. However, Texas is still home to some of the lowest landfill tipping fees in the country, with Austin currently paying $19.48 per ton for household waste disposal. In this environment, why would the city's Solid Waste Services Department (SWS) want to implement a potentially controversial program and treat household garbage as a utility?
In the Beginning
As a result of the cancellation of plans to build a waste-to-energy facility in 1988 and the rapidly diminishing capacity at its landfill, the city of Austin decided to do something to generate less trash and extend the life of the disposal site. As a result, the city passed the Comprehensive Recycling Resolution in 1990. The resolution paved the way for a pilot program to determine the effectiveness of a PAYT program. The city conducted a pilot program consisting of approximately 3,000 households from July 1991 until July 1992. The households also were given 14-gallon bins in which they could place any accepted recyclables.
After determining that the pilot was successful in reducing per capita waste generation, the city began the first phase of a three-phase, citywide rollout for the PAYT program. Approximately 30,000 households were included in the first phase, and the city eventually deployed roughly 120,000 carts to residential customers. SWS enlisted the help of volunteer block leaders to assist city staff in educating residents about the program.
By 1997, the city had implemented a variable rate pay structure with three sizes of carts for household trash: 32, 64 and 96 gallons. Additionally, residents are charged for extra trash that is placed outside the cart.
Currently, stickers can be purchased at local grocery stores for $4.00 each and affixed to any extra bags placed outside the cart. Any unstickered bags are billed to the customer's utility bill at a rate of $8.00 per bag. The city generated revenues of nearly $1.6 million dollars in fiscal year 2009 from unstickered trash and $152,200 from stickered trash. However, after the city communicated extensively with residents about the associated fees, the amount of extra garbage being set out has been declined considerably. This year, revenue from extra garbage fees likely will be closer to $1 million dollars.
To encourage recycling, SWS allows customers to downsize their cart at no fee. However, the city adds a one-time $15.00 charge to residents' utility bills if they upgrade their cart size.
An early challenge was counteracting the perception that changing from twice-per-week to once-per-week collection was a reduction in service. To offset this perceived decrease, the city informed customers that while they may have one less trash collection day per week, they were now going to be provided with free weekly yard waste and recyclable collection, and with semi-annual brush and bulky collection programs. In an effort to provide an equitable system, all customers paid the same rate — whether they received once-per-week or twice-per-week trash collection — until the city was fully converted to the PAYT system.
To alleviate any anxiety about additional charges for excess garbage at the beginning of the program, especially for those that opted for the smaller cart size, the city issued all residents complimentary extra garbage stickers that could be used for any excess trash.
Other challenges centered on the equipment and staff required to accommodate the transition from twice-per-week collection (which was done with three-person crews) to once-per-week collection (which is done with two-person crews). Staff either had to be reassigned or positions were left vacant as employees retired or found employment elsewhere.
Also, prior to going to PAYT, Austin used light-duty, rear-load trucks. The vehicles were rarely packed full because of the twice-per-week collection. However, when the city went to once-per-week collection, it became evident that the lighter-duty bodies could not withstand having to collect more trash at each pick-up. The bodies began to fail, so the department opted for a heavier-duty body that could withstand the greater weights and pressures exerted on it.
Truck cab design also was a component that had to be changed with the new system. Because the previous three-person crew had been reduced to a two-person crew, the city switched from a conventional cab to a low-entry, cab-forward design. The lower entry height made it easier for the driver to get out and assist in the collection of carts and extra bags. In 2000, SWS began using fully automated collection trucks to collect approximately 60 percent of the city's garbage. On-street parking, the crowded University of Texas area and numerous trees made it necessary to retain some semi-automated rear loaders in parts of the city.
In 1991, Austin had a diversion rate of about 9.8 percent. Today, that number is around 35 percent. One of the most encouraging results of the PAYT program is that the rate of household garbage taken to the landfill has gone down to just more than 27 pounds per household per week from approximately 43 pounds per household per week in 1991.
The variable rate structure and subsequent implementation of single-stream recycling has shifted the distribution of cart sizes, with more customers downsizing their carts. Prior to the October 2008 implementation of single stream and the accompanying increase in rates for larger trash cart sizes and for extra trash, the percentage of households with 32-, 64- and 96-gallon carts was 13.3 percent, 63.2 percent and 20.5 percent, respectively. As of January 2010, those numbers have changed to 16.9 percent, 60.7 percent and 19.3 percent.
While the purchase of carts and trucks needed for the PAYT program represented a significant capital expenditure, the city was able to realize savings through the program. The savings stemmed from a reduction in staffing levels, decreases in injuries associated with manual collection, the use of an automated routing system that led to improved collection efficiencies, and the reduced per-capita waste generation rate.
With Austin passing its Zero Waste Resolution in 2005 and a city goal of being carbon neutral by 2020, SWS is exploring additional strategies to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills. Educating residents of the benefits of reducing consumption, encouraging businesses to participate in product stewardship, maintaining the rate gap between larger carts and smaller ones, and developing a 50-year master plan will assist the city in meeting these goals. The PAYT program has been a valuable tool to encourage citizens to think about the waste they produce and to provide an equitable system under which those that practice conservation don't have to subsidize those who don't practice it.
Richard McHale is the solid waste division manager of the Collections Division for the city of Austin, Texas.