IN MOST COMMUNITIES, businesses pay for garbage collection based on the size of their trash containers and how many times per week those containers are emptied. Residences, however, pay a flat fee regardless of the amount of trash they place on the curb or how often it is collected.
For about 10 years now, the EPA has tried to get cities to catch up with businesses and charge a variable rate for garbage based on the volume generated. At first, progress was fast, as three states more or less mandated “pay-as-you-throw” systems. Since then, the pace has slowed.
Variable rate advocates argue that these systems allow waste generators to understand the true costs of garbage disposal. When they do, people will recycle more and generate less garbage.
The facts are well-known. The amount of trash set out for disposal decreases with pay-as-you-throw pricing. But less waste isn't being generated. It's being managed differently. With volume pricing systems, more material is placed at the curb for recycling. Yard waste is composted or “grasscycled.” More food waste is ground-up in garbage disposals and sent down the sink for handling by wastewater treatment systems.
Recycling and composting rates probably increase the most in those cities that had the lowest rates when pay-as-you-throw programs began.
But someone still has to pay for the recycling and composting programs. And I've never seen sales data that supports the argument that people change their shopping habits in pay-as-you-throw cities.
So what's all the fuss about pay-as-you-throw? Why is a libertarian in Massachusetts pushing a vote on his town's new variable-rate program? And why did someone bomb a transfer station in Connecticut that has twice voted down a similar proposal?
I can understand the libertarian's argument. He says that pay-as-you-throw is a hidden tax. He's right if garbage taxes aren't cut when a new pricing scheme goes into effect. In that case, elected officials are simply stealing money by imposing a new tax in the guise of a user fee. If they are changing the way people pay for a service, they should lower the taxes that previously were used to pay for the service.
But bombing the transfer station? Obviously that's an irrational exception in a debate playing out in many Connecticut communities over how to pay for garbage.
Rising costs have caused some of the angst in Connecticut. The state's largest resource recovery authority lost $220 million dollars in an ill-fated deal with Enron, and politicians are scrambling to find ways to cover the authority's losses. Pay-as-you-throw may add to the financial problems of the state's resource recovery authorities if it significantly reduces the amount of waste being disposed and forces the incinerators to raise their tipping fees or fund themselves through hidden taxes.
Maybe variable rates were oversold. For communities with low recycling rates, rising disposal costs and competitive disposal options, they will be beneficial. But in other circumstances, they may cause problems instead of solving them.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected] 
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.