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Pay-As-You-Throw's Payback

PAY-AS-YOU-THROW (PAYT) systems can create incentives to recycle, but not all programs are equal. Program fee structures, recycling options and education all influence the effectiveness of PAYT programs, according to a recent study by the Cedar Rapids-based East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG).

Since Iowa passed legislation in the late 1980s requiring its cities and counties to reduce landfill waste by 50 percent by the year 2000, many of the state's communities have implemented recycling programs; several also have created PAYT programs. Because many cities and counties are continuing to strive to reach the 50 percent diversion goal today, ECICOG wanted to determine what contributes to a recycling program's success.

Using a $100,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Des Moines, ECICOG evaluated eight communities' recycling programs — five of which operate PAYT programs. The other three cities or rural areas pay a flat fee for refuse and recycling collection, or pay for weekly refuse collection and have access to drop-off recycling sites.

PAYT works best, according to the study, when a “true” system exists, and residents are aware of the program's costs and benefits.

Partial PAYT

Cedar Rapids operates a “hybrid” PAYT program in which customers pay $12.95 per month for refuse, recycling and yard waste collection. This entitles residents to one 35-gallon bag, or a 40-pound weight maximum. If residents exceed those limits, they may purchase an additional $1.25 tag that allows for another 35-gallon or 40-pound pickup.

The city began examining PAYT in the late '80s, when the state's diversion legislation was passed. Cedar Rapids is the largest community ECICOG studied and has a population of approximately 120,000, about 39,000 of which are serviced by the city's Department of Solid Waste and Recycling (DOS). Although the city wanted to reduce its waste, it did not know how much recycling options would help. So before implementing its PAYT program, Cedar Rapids hired Seattle-headquartered R.W. Beck to examine the city's waste stream.

The company asked load-carrying trucks to empty their contents at a separate area at the landfill, so recyclables could be sorted, weighed and divided by the number of households on the route. The total waste per household was fewer than 40 pounds per week.

Based on this information, Cedar Rapids' citizens advisory committee examined different refuse disposal scenarios and concluded that a flat monthly fee, plus an additional fee for more than 40 pounds of garbage, was the most reasonable option. The city then conducted a three-month pilot to test the hybrid PAYT program. When the pilot ended, residents returned to their normal refuse collection, and recycling declined.

“At that point, residents were not required to pay anything for extra garbage,” says Mark Jones, director of the Solid Waste and Recycling for Cedar Rapids. “Inevitably, we saw a drop in the amount of recycling and an increase in garbage. So if we left [households] to their own devices, they would not have participated [in recycling].”

In the first year PAYT was implemented citywide, Cedar Rapids diverted approximately 9,000 tons. The rate now is holding steady at 8,500 tons per year.

Pure and Simple

Monticello, population 3,600, operates a “true” PAYT program. Like most Iowa communities, when the state mandated waste diversion, the city knew it had to make changes. The first step was to implement yard waste and recycling collection. But the city faced challenges in whether and how to handle recycling.

“We looked at doing recycling ourselves, but we didn't have a place to store the materials or process them,” says Dana Edwards, the city's public works director. So the city hired a private hauler to handle recycling.

Then, Monticello created a PAYT system in which residents pay a flat fee of $11 per month and an additional 50 cents to 74 cents for every bag of refuse that is placed on the curb. Recycling collection is included in the $11 per month and occurs bi-weekly. Additionally, residents must purchase clear bags with the city's logo — one for refuse and another for recyclables. Clear bags help the city to ensure that residents are recycling. If the hauler notices too many recyclables in a refuse bag, it will be left on the curb for residents to properly sort for recycling.

In 1993 when Monticello implemented PAYT, Edwards says the city easily attained a 25 percent diversion rate. Now, the city boasts 761 pounds of recyclables per household are collected each year — only 3.7 pounds of recyclables per household per year remain in the trash.

“Changes are the hard part of the business, especially with recycling,” Edwards says. “If you take something now and not later, it's hard to re-educate [residents]. But once everyone gets the hang of it, it works pretty well.”

Not Just for Homeowners

Sometimes, rural areas perceive there will be difficulties in getting residents to recycle. But when rural Iowa County's local landfill fees increased sharply from $28 per ton to $40 per ton, Cox Sanitation and Recycling Inc., which provides refuse and recycling collection for the area, knew it would need to either increase its rates or boost recycling.

Cox Sanitation President Ron Cox knew establishing a curbside recycling program would mean fewer materials would need to be landfilled. So with the help of the DNR, he implemented a PAYT requirement for residents. Now, homeowners have two options. They can: 1) pay a flat monthly fee of $5.50 to $7.50 per month and also pay 77 cents to $1.30 for every bag that is placed on the curb, or 2) subscribe to a $15 per month program. “DNR believed PAYT was the only way to get people to recycle more,” Cox says.

According to the study, this reduced landfilled waste by 60 to 80 percent annually. Before PAYT was implemented in Williamsburg, Iowa, 20 tons per day of residential waste were being landfilled. Now that figure is only 7 tons per day.

Moreover, because Cox collects commercial refuse and recycling, he has encouraged some of the county's businesses to subscribe to the PAYT system, too. For example, stores in an outlet mall in Williamsburg use a PAYT system. Previously, each store had its own 6-yard container and was paying for each pickup. Problems often occurred when materials were added to containers at night, either by another store or by local residents. Cox's solution to curb illegal dumping was to have stores buy PAYT bags and identify their bags with a tag. He also established communal recycling bins for items such as cardboard and paper. This eliminated illegal dumping and the amount each store was throwing away, which decreased disposal costs.

“If people pay for the bag that has their name on it, it's the only way to get people involved in more recycling,” Cox says. “The more [customers] recycle, the fewer bags they use. [PAYT] was a way to reduce waste from going into landfill, and it did.”

Assessing Effectiveness

Based on its evaluation of Cedar Rapids, Monticello, rural Iowa County and five other Iowa communities that recycle, ECICOG found that PAYT systems are more effective than other recycling collection programs in boosting diversion rates. For example, in Belle Plaine, residents have refuse collection but must use drop-off facilities for recycling. As a result, single-family homes leave approximately 330 pounds of recycling in the garbage per year (multi-family homes leave more), compared to Monticello's approximately 190 pounds per year.

However, the study also found that Monticello's “true” PAYT program was more effective than Cedar Rapids' “hybrid” PAYT plan. Cedar Rapids residents leave approximately 230 pounds of recyclables in their garbage. And some Cedar Rapids retirees or single-person homes did not realize they were using a PAYT system because they were allotted two bags per week and rarely needed to buy a third bag. Larger households appeared to be more aware of the PAYT system and were more proactive in trying to reduce waste, the study indicates.

If there is minimal awareness about PAYT, residents are not likely to recycle more — even if they are paying for each bag of garbage, according to the study. Thus, ECICOG believes a “true” PAYT system in which residents are aware of disposal costs would be more effective than a “hybrid” system in diverting recycling.

Now, the study's results are being used to guide Benton County's recycling efforts toward PAYT. For the past 10 years, the county's 14 cities have taken recyclables to drop-off locations, but some officials no longer believe that this adequately serves the communities. PAYT is not the only way to increase recycling, but the state supports the system because it can be effective.

“Iowa has more [PAYT programs] than other states because [there has been] a push for PAYT, waste reduction legislation and educated residents … Local offices support recycling and see the benefits of PAYT,” says ECICOG's Marie Devries.

For more information on ECICOG's study, download “Evaluation of Recycling Programs” at www.state.ia.us/dnr/organiza/wmad, or call (319) 365-9941.

Rebekah A. Hall is Waste Age's managing editor.


Services and Service Area: Serves 39,000 residential customers in city with population of 125,000 to 130,000. No commercial service provided for buildings larger than a four-plex. Bulky item collection occurs once per year.

PAYT Program: Hybrid system in which customers pay a flat monthly fee of $12.95 that covers weekly garbage collection of a 35-gallon can or bag that weighs a maximum of 40 pounds. If customers exceed that volume or weight, customers must purchase a garbage tag for $1.25 that they place on the additional can or bag. The monthly garbage fee also covers yard waste and recycling, in which there is no pickup limit. Customers are provided a standard 18-gallon blue box for recycling.

No. & Types of Trucks: Eight 25-yard Leach/Freightliner rear loading packers for garbage collection; nine 24-yard Labrie Expert 2000/Freightliner recycling trucks; two 33-yard Labrie CoolHand/Freightliner trucks for yard waste; and three 29-yard Labrie Expert 2000/Freightliner trucks for yard waste.

Containers: 95-gallon Rehrig Pacific carts and 18-gallon Rehrig blue boxes.

No. of Employees: 40 drivers/collectors; 12 hourly employees; 2 recycling; 6 administrative.


Services and Service Area: Refuse and yard waste collection for community of 3,600. (Recycling is handled by a private hauler who collects and processes the materials.) Bulk pickup occurs twice per year.

PAYT Program: City operates the sanitation route and charges 75 cents per 30-gallon bag, or 50 cents for a smaller bag. The bags are clear, so if drivers see recyclables in the bag, they leave it for the contracted recyclables hauler to pickup. Households are charged $3.37 per month for recycling and $11 per month for garbage. Apartments are charged $3.46 per unit. Yard waste is picked up by the city every other week in open containers.

No. & Types of Trucks: One 20-yard Leach/International rear-loading packer; one 20-yard Heil/International rear-loading packer. Both trucks have winches.

Containers: Clear plastic bags.

No. of Employees: 2 full-time sanitation; 1 summer employee.


  • Same-day garbage and recyclables collection;
  • Commingling recyclable materials;
  • Banning certain materials from landfills, such as cardboard; and
  • Increase spending on recycling and refuse education.

Source: ECICOG


Services and Service Area: 4,000 residential customers in rural Iowa County.

PAYT Program: Customers have the option to pay a flat monthly fee of $5.50 to $7.50 and 77 cents to $1.30 for every bag of refuse, or if residents don't want to subscribe to PAYT, then they are required to pay a flat fee of approximately $15 per month.

No. & Types of Trucks: 16 trucks, including International, Freightliner, GMC and Kenworth.

Containers: Rubbermaid or metal-frame carts.

No. of Employees: 14 full-time employees.