COLLECTION: Wisconsin Cities Charge By Volume To Reduce Waste

Wisconsin's MSW directors want to control wasteful behavior. To do so, volume-based rate (VBR) collection programs have been set up across the state.

VBR collection programs charge a direct user fee based on the amount of waste disposed. There is no charge for collecting recyclable materials.

The state of Wisconsin encourages communities to use volume-based rates through regulation and economic incentives. When a responsible unit (RU) doesn't recycle at least 25 percent by volume or weight of its region's solid waste, a volume-based fee system is required, according to a requirement of the Recycling Law, 1989 Wisconsin Act 335. This requirement will go into effect in 1997.

As an economic incentive, $2.9 million in grants is available to RUs that use volume-based rates. The number of residents in the municipality determines how much money each community receives. Meanwhile, 206 communities already have implemented VBR programs.

The basic VBR systems include: * Pre-paid bag, tag, sticker or punch card. With this method, users pay a per-container fee for "official" bags or tags. The fee depends on the container's size. Only bags or containers with sanctioned fee mechanisms are collected.

* Variable subscription service. With this method, users must notify community officials of the container size or the number of containers they will use for refuse. Charges are based on the level of service selected.

In the Wisconsin city of Chilton, residents sign up for either 45-, 60- or 90-gallon carts for weekly, curbside collection service. Since residents must pay higher fees for larger containers, the city has designed incentives to encourage residents to save money and reduce waste. For example, they can sign a formal agreement to share a cart and switching to a smaller container is free. However, a $10 administrative fee is charged to consumers who want to increase container size.

* Weight-based system. Users pay a set fee per pound of garbage set out in designated containers. The garbage is weighed upon delivery or pick-up.

Variations on the basic VBR systems include: * Base rate system. All users pay a set fee for a given amount of service and pay per container for any garbage disposed above the base amount. Usually, the base amount is charged as a special fee on taxes and a certain amount of stickers, bags or punch cards are sent to residents in exchange. Residents purchase additional stickers on an as-needed basis.

For example, the city of Platteville provides one, 25-gallon bag per week and charges $1 per bag for additional bags. The monthly $7.05 base rate billed with the taxes covers refuse collection and disposal for 52 bags per year as well as the recycling program and leaf vacuum collection.

The general fund covers administrative costs and the per-bag cost defrays refuse collection and disposal expenses for bags above the base limit. A 16-week summer grass collection program is funded by a per-bag charge.

* Variable container. The community's users choose a container size; naturally, large containers cost more or require the purchase of additional tags, stickers or punches. For example, many programs will accept 15- and 30-gallon bags, with the 30-gallon size costing at least twice the price of the 15-gallon bag.

Pricing VBR collection programs is critical to their success, according to Wisconsin officials. The per-container fees usually cover just the costs of refuse collection and disposal (see graph). Pay-by-the-bag programs are most frequently used in both drop-off and curbside programs, with costs ranging from 50 cents to $3.50 per bag.

Overall, program managers do not include the true program costs in container fees, regardless of high tipping fees or what level of solid waste management the fee covers. Container fees are kept low to prevent public backlash, illegal dumping and burning and revenue shortfalls.

The town of Oregon, for example, finances its refuse and recycling programs through sticker sales. During the first year of its VBR program, the town overestimated the number of containers it would need. To counteract the revenue shortfall and to cover costs, the town raised the price of its stickers. Rather than feeling rewarded for recycling, residents felt penalized by the rate adjustment. Oregon could have avoided this situation if it had initially educated residents about the causes of rate adjustments.

The key to VBR programs, said a manager in Chippewa County, is to educate residents and financially reward them.

For a copy of the Wisconsin Volume Based Rate Collection Guide, contact: Sherrie Gruder, Recycling Operations Specialist, University of Wisconsin - Extension, Solid & Hazardous Waste Education Center, 610 Langdon St., Room 529, Madison, Wis. 53703. (608) 262-0385.