COLLECTION: Communities Take A Closer Look At Unit Pricing

What good is achieving a goal if no reward will follow?

Employers award bonuses to top employees; parents purchase toys for children with good grades; and dieters treat themselves to cheesecake after a long period of healthy eating.

Consequently, solid waste managers are banking on the belief that the financial incentives of a unit-based collection program will en-courage community members to re-duce the amount of wastes generated.

With unit pricing, the less trash a household produces, the lower the disposal costs will be. The rate structure is directly related to the actual costs for refuse disposal and recycling programs.

More than 1,000 U.S. communities use unit pricing systems, ac-cording to Seattle-based Synergic Resources and, now, even states are encouraging these "pay-as-you-throw" programs. For example, Washington and Minnesota require unit pricing across the state and Wisconsin mandates variable rate collection for cities that fail to meet a 25-percent recycling rate.

In 1990, the Pennsylvania De-partment of Environmental Re-sources recommended unit pricing as the primary waste reduction strategy to meet the goals outlined in Pa. Act 101.

Carlisle Borough, Pa., began its mandatory pay-by-the-bag program in 1990. The borough's more than 18,000 residents do not re-ceive a bill for the private hauler's trash services. Instead, residents fi-nance the service by purchasing specially marked, 30-gallon blue trash bags. The bags, which sell for $2.10 each, can be purchased at 13 locations including the municipal building and grocery stores. In addition, weekly recycling of seven different materials and a spring cleanup are offered at no additional charge.

In Mercer County, Pa., the private hauler that collects the borough of Grove City's municipal waste must submit a daily weight receipt to the borough. Grove City pays the hauler for collection and disposal costs based on the tons of waste sent to the landfill, and bills homeowners monthly for the cost of the previous month's trash disposal. To determine the cost per household, borough officials simply divide the city's total disposal costs by the number of households using the municipality's collection contract.

For example, in June 1994, 2,500 households were billed $6.95 for trash collected in May. How-ever, the garbage bill for May was $8.15 per household, since more waste was collected and disposed in April.

With a population of more than 8,000 residents, Grove City reportedly produced 0.43 tons of MSW per person in 1993.

The mandatory unit pricing program in Indiana Borough serves approximately 4,000 homes. Res-idents purchase blue bags for $1 each at local convenience stores and supermarkets.

Although most unit pricing programs include recycling costs, In-diana Borough residents pay separate fees for trash and recycling. The $1-per-bag price funds trash collection and residents annually pay $30 to the Indiana County So-lid Waste Authority for the collection and processing of recyclable materials.

Indiana University of Pennsyl-vania is of special interest to the borough. Indiana officials were concerned that students who live off-campus would not participate in the program. Fortunately, the u-nit price system has not caused an increase in illegal dumping by students.

The payment structure of La-trobe Borough's program varies from the more traditional ones in the state. Latrobe homeowners pay two separate fees for trash services: a monthly fixed fee of $10, which covers most program expenses; and 25 cents for each 30-gallon bag purchased, which allows customers to control a small portion of their collection costs.

Latrobe officials are considering changing their program which, as the oldest unit pricing program in Pennsylvania, has been in operation since 1976. To create more in-centive for residents to reduce and recycle, the borough is considering lowering the fixed monthly payment and increasing the cost per bag. Officials also are evaluating a sticker program. With this system, homeowners could use their own containers and the stickers, which would require less storage space in the municipality's garage, could be mailed to customers.

With reportedly one of the most studied unit pricing programs in the nation, Perkasie Borough offers residents two bag sizes for purchase: a large, 40-pound-capacity bag which costs $2.25 each; or a smaller, 20-pound bag for $1.25. The prices reportedly cover the collection and disposal of MSW and recycling costs. To date, the borough has decreased the amount of MSW landfilled by 41 percent.

Despite the the financial incentives of unit pricing programs, mu-nicipal solid waste managers need to be aware of possible disadvantages. These systems also bear un-certain administrative costs and a potential adverse response from the community and the waste in-dustry.

For example, in some cases, mu-nicipalities must purchase and distribute the bags to area merchants. Also, it costs money to enforce laws against illegal dumping and trash burning as well as to clean up any additional litter and trash. Pro-motional efforts such as printing and distributing newsletters also are an added expense.

Finally, be prepared to address homeowner confusion. Fortunately, a strong public education program can cure the uneasiness of most residents.