COLLECTION: Volume-Based Program Succeeds In Urban Setting

Worcester, Mass., officials were uncertain if a volume-based collection program combined with curbside recycling could work in a large, urban area with a diverse population. Undaunted, they de-cided to try.

With 170,000 residents, Worces-ter is the second largest city in New England. The population of this central Massachusetts community encompasses all socio-economic backgrounds. Housing is equally divided between single- and multi-family dwellings.

Until July 1993, the property tax funded approximately 50 percent of the city's municipal solid waste (MSW) collection and disposal services. How-ever, the Department of Pub-lic Works (DPW) competed with the school, police and fire departments for limited funds. After repeated cuts in its tax levy budget, DPW decided to evaluate alternative collection and disposal options rather than decrease its services.

Worcester officials considered a flat user fee and volume-based collection. The flat fee was dismissed because it requires all users to pay an equal amount, regardless of the amount of waste generated. In addition, flat fees offered no incentive to participate in recycling. Instead, Worcester opted for a curbside recycling program with a fee requiring residents to purchase specific bags for refuse disposal.

Bright yellow bags, priced at 50 cents each, have been printed with the program's logo "Pay a Little, Save a Lot." The bags are sold at 115 retail outlets. DPW also developed an extensive public education and awareness campaign including bro-chures in three languages, newspaper, radio and airplane adver- tisements, bumper stickers, billboards and radio talk shows.

Enforcement methods to encourage compliance and to avoid illegal disposal include fines and two notification stickers. The first, a bright orange "warning" sticker, is placed on non-program bags and informs residents of the new, official bags. Residents are allowed 24 hours to remove the bag and must comply with the program by the following week. The second sticker is placed on bags that weigh more than 30 pounds or contain recyclables mixed with refuse. If residents fail to respond to these stickers, DPW enacts a progressive fining system starting at $25 and increasing to $100.

Since late 1993, the program has effectively reduced the amount of MSW sent to landfills (see table). For example, solid waste tonnages have declined nearly 45 percent. The city's recycling rate is slightly more than 37 percent and has re-mained at that level during most of the program. When yard wastes are included, Worcester diverts more than 50 percent of its solid waste to recycling and composting.

Program compliance among the 50,000 participating households has been 99.9 percent, allowing the city to reduce the amount of MSW collected and incinerated by more than 40 million pounds. With less trash on the curb for city crews to collect, the DPW has reduced its collection crews by 33 percent. Two-person crews, rather than the previous three, now collect garbage on the city's 11 routes. Savings from the reduced crew sizes and tipping fee costs have allowed the department to re-allocate more than $1 million to other public works programs.

In addition, a free bulk and hazardous waste collection day has been re-instituted. Public response to these services has been positive and, as a result, illegal dumping has been reduced.

The program has been modified further for public convenience. For example, small re-cycling bins with handles were introduced for those residents who find the large recycling bins too cumbersome. Small half-size trash bags also are available for residents who do not fill a 30-gallon bag on a weekly basis.

The results of Worcester's solid waste program have shown officials that volume-based programs can succeed in an urban area.