COLLECTION: Study Tracks Growth In Variable Rate Programs

The trend of charging collection customers for the amount of waste they dispose continues to gain mo-mentum, according to a recent study by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. Variable Rates For Municipal Solid Waste: Imple-mentation Experience, Economics and Legislation states that more than 1,000 communities nationwide now have variable rate systems, which have resulted in 25 to 45 percent reductions in disposal tonnages. An additional 800 communities are expected to implement programs by the end of this year.

"Variable rate programs are becoming much more common be-cause [waste managers] are getting a handle on disposal costs. They are interested in giving their customers a sense of these costs through price signals," said the re-port's author, Lisa A. Sku-matz.

The rise in variable rate programs also can be attributed to increasing disposal costs, regional diversion goals, recycling enforcement, success in other communities, public pressure and legislative requirements, according to the study. In the United States, 20 percent of state legislatures have implemented laws that encourage or mandate variable rates. Three states - Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin - have laws that require variable rates as part of an overall plan to reduce solid waste (see chart).

The study reviews several types of variable rate programs: variable can systems, pre-paid bag systems, pre-paid tags or stickers, hybrid systems and weight-based systems. Variable can systems bill customers on the number and/or size of cans subscribed, while pre-paid bag systems allow customers to purchase specially marked garbage bags that reflect the costs of collection and disposal. With tag/sticker systems, customers purchase a tag or sticker that re-flects these costs and affix it to their cans or bags. Hybrid systems charge a base cost through taxes or fixed fees and add incremental costs through variable rates as a waste reduction initiative. Weight-based systems charge customers for each pound of waste disposed.

There are advantages and drawbacks to each of the systems, and Skumatz emphasizes there is no one solution for all communities. "Each method works well," she said. "I wouldn't say one is better than the others. It depends on a particular community's needs."

In the study, Skumatz notes there are some regional preferences for certain systems: Variable cans are popular on the West Coast; bag systems are often the choice in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and North-east; and tag systems mostly are found in the Midwest.

Community size also affects the choice of method, according to Skumatz. Smaller communities tend to opt for tag or bag systems, while large ones gravitate toward variable can systems because they often have automated collection or access to billing systems.

The study notes the diversity of local conditions in variable rate communities. Systems have been implemented in communities with private, contract and franchise hauling and municipal collection. Pro-grams are now operating in urban, suburban, small town, unincorporated and rural areas.

As an increasing range and number of communities implement variable rates, some of the earlier wrinkles in the system have been ironed out. For example, one problem with volume-based rates is that customers may compact their waste to reduce the amount they are charged. Seattle encountered this problem and dubbed it the "Seattle Stomp." Says Skumatz, "Communities have gotten better and better at guessing the amount of compaction, and they have been able to incorporate that information into their prices."

Another possible problem with variable rates is illegal dumping. Many communities have adopted very aggressive policies of enforcement and prevention, while others have alleviated the problem with moderate public education, according to the study. "Hundreds of communities told me not to let illegal dumping be a barrier to implementing variable rates," said Skumatz. "There is usually no problem or only a temporary problem that can be solved with education or enforcement." In some communities, dumpster owners lock their containers or locate them in less accessible places to further reduce illegal dumping.

The study highlights several other lessons from communities nationwide, including the importance of political support and broad-based participation in the decision-making process. It also recommends offering program al-ternatives to citizens, teaching them about the program, incorporating feedback from haulers, preparing politicians for citizen opposition, evaluating local conditions, trying pilot projects and implementing special collections. In addition, the study advises that waste managers avoid purchasing cans or containers that are too large for the minimum service customers may need.

As the number of variable rate programs continues to grow, communities must evaluate their long-term effectiveness, the study concludes. Skumatz maintains that program participation rates and gross tonnage diverted are not full measures of whether funds and efforts are being allocated properly. She describes a number of evaluation methods: studying a representative group, comparing results to a control community and using re-gression techniques/econometric analysis.

The growing number of variable rate programs reported by the study indicates that many communities' evaluations are positive. This trend likely will continue as the system's use - and credibility - are on the rise.

For a copy of the study, contact the Reason Foundation at (310) 391-2245 or Lisa Skumatz, Syner-gic Resources Corp., at (206) 624-8508.