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Pay-As-You-Throw Municipal Solid Waste Strategies: Starting the Discussion

Pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs represent a powerful strategy for limiting landfill-bound content in municipal waste systems. As residents respond to the incentives built into a PAYT strategy, though, haulers, material recovery facilities (MRF), and other stakeholders within the sustainable materials management stream must be prepared to absorb the changes.

Haulers will need to train staff on recognizing new bags, bins, or tags on their routes. Local MRFs should invest in appropriate material handling equipment to keep up with increased material flows. Residents, local businesses, and government officials will all need to understand the advantages of the new system to ensure support and compliance.

In order to ensure a smooth transition to a new PAYT system, city sanitation departments must work with all of these parties from the very beginning of the process. Information sharing is the key. Before making any changes to the municipal waste-handling system in any community, leaders should sit down with all the organizations involved to educate them on all aspects of a proposed PAYT system.

Here are a few of the questions about PAYT that organizers should address in early talks with their contracted service providers in the waste stream prior to instituting a new program.  

Why Institute Pay-As-You-Throw?

Generally speaking, PAYT programs are waste-collection strategies that charge residents for disposing of landfill-bound trash based on volume. Recycling and composting on the other hand, would remain fixed-rate or free services.

This model of pricing mirrors existing utilities. For instance, gas companies and electricity providers charge based on usage. When you use more electricity one month, you pay more for the service.

In the typical municipal waste-handling system, this is not the case. Residents pay a fixed monthly fee, no matter how much waste they generate on a month-to-month basis. As a result, there is little incentive to reduce waste at the source. Even communities that offer single-stream recycling and municipal composting programs get stuck far from the zero-waste goal.

The most comprehensive picture of the state of U.S. waste handling comes from the Environmental Protection Agency's 2018 report on Advancing Materials Management. The information in that report — which covers the trends in the industry, including landfilling, energy recovery, composting, recycling, and material generation at the source — is from calendar year 2015.

Pay as you Throw

That year, slightly more than half of the municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. went to the landfill. The statistics make an excellent argument for policies that discourage waste generation in every household. In 2015, here's how municipal solid waste management broke down by percentage:

  • Landfilling: 52.5 percent
  • Recycling: 25.8 percent
  • Combustion with Energy Recovery: 12.8 percent
  • Composting: 8.9 percent

According to an information site maintained by the nonprofit Recycling Foundation, the most effective PAYT programs can achieve waste-reduction rates of up to 50 percent, and even more in rare cases. As with any program, though, the effectiveness will vary from one community to the next, and the way officials decide to implement the programs makes a huge difference in establishing strong diversion rates.     

What Exactly Is Pay As You Throw, and How Does It Work?

So what are the nuts and bolts of building a new PAYT system? The Recycling Foundation presents four models of PAYT at the municipal level:

  1. The Cash-Based System.

    In this model, residents deliver bags of municipal solid waste to a central location, and pay for each bag on the spot. This model only exists in rural communities these days, since curbside waste collection has become the norm in more populous areas.

    Still, the model has proven effective. According to the Recycling Foundation, cash-based PAYT collection can reduce landfill-bound waste by up to 30 percent.

  2. The Variable-Rate Cart System.

    This program allows residents to choose among different sizes of curbside trash bins. If they anticipate sending large volumes of waste to the landfill, they'll pay more for a larger bin. The smaller bins will cost significantly less.

    This price differential incentivizes waste diversion, like recycling and composting. That brings up an important point, actually: All PAYT models are designed to steer residents toward alternatives to landfill waste. They won't work in absence of well-designed recycling programs capable of running at full capacity. Municipal composting only improves odds of success, because it offers another pathway for waste.

    The Recycling Foundation points out that research on waste reduction associated with this model is scarce. However, they point out an anecdotal case, in which a variable-rate cart program was associated with a 15-percent waste reduction in Springfield, Massachusetts.

  3. The Sticker/Tag System.

    This one takes its cue from the postage stamp. In this model, local governments require residents to purchase waste-collection stickers or tags. The residents affix these official stamps to curbside waste bags, and haulers will refuse to collect bags that don't have the relevant tag.

    The hope is the financial disincentive of paying for tags will encourage residents to avoid landfilling. This does seem to be the case, at least to some extent; generally, waste reduction rates range between 5 and 20 percent using the sticker/tag model. In rare cases, the Recycling Foundation claims, this technique leads to 30 to 40-percent diversion rate increases.

  4. The Pay-Per-Bag System.

    This seems to be the Recycling Foundation's preferred model. Under this system, the city sells clearly marked trash bags. These bag fees help residents make the connection between generating waste and making payments, incentivizing diversion.     

    This is a particularly flexible approach. Municipalities can sell bags in a variety of sizes and at different price points. Residents can either stack those bags on the curb or place them in curbside bins for automated collection. 

    The best thing about pay-per-bag systems is that they work. According to the Recycling Foundation, this approach can create waste reduction improvements of 40 to 50 percent, or even higher in certain cases.

No matter which model a municipality chooses, public outreach will be a huge part of creating successful change. The city will have to teach residents about new programs while keeping benefits front and center.

Along with outreach, there will be administrative challenges to setting up a PAYT system. City staff will have to plan delivery methods for bags, bins, tags, or labels. They'll need to set up locations for residents to purchase them. And they'll have to come up with price points that are fair and affordable while being high enough to incentivize diversion.

Meanwhile, organizations in alternate waste streams will have to prepare for a new influx of materials as residents send less to landfills and more to MRFs and commercial composters.

What Are Cost-Effective Ways for MRFs to Boost Capacity?

It's difficult to predict the percentage of waste that a PAYT program will divert to material recovery facilities; as noted above, it is likely to be anywhere between 5 and 50 percent. The key to preparing at the MRF is flexibility which is best accomplished by mobile waste-handling equipment that can support existing material pathways.

 One such adaptable system for handling unanticipated tonnage at the MRF includes the following pieces of equipment:

  • Additional Mobile Bins

    - Many MRFs will not be in a position to make major changes to existing conveyor systems. A fleet of high-capacity mobile bins will provide flexibility, allowing staff to organize and store excess materials until conveyors are ready for another load. With adequate material handling equipment, 660-Liter (174 gallon) or 1100-Liter (290 gallon) Mobile Garbage Bins provide a safe and efficient way to store, move, and empty high volumes of recyclables or compostable materials.
  • Ergonomic Bin-Handling Equipment

    - Greater volumes of material may place a greater strain on staff, leading to an increase in musculoskeletal injuries, days away from work, and problems with retention. The solution is to provide ergonomic equipment that prevents strain and stress on the worker's body.

    Nu-Star PowerPushers empower staff to move Mobile Garbage Bins around the facility without ergonomic risk. These tuggers give users control over loads of up to 50,000 pounds, with a special attachment that effortlessly grasps Mobile Garbage Bins.

  • Bin Tippers

    - Completing the system,MegaDumper Hydraulic Bin Tippers lift and empty full bins, providing on-demand tipping even in the absence of haulers. These commercial-scale trash can dumpers prevent ergonomic hazards by eliminating dangerous manual lifting. Casters allow users to reposition the units between loads, while the bolt-down fleet option allows the unit to be integrated permanently into existing conveyor lines.

Taken together, this collection of waste-handling equipment allows existing staff to boost capacity without increasing ergonomic risk. Municipalities might even consider creating grant programs to encourage MRF operators to invest, laying the groundwork for a highly successful pay-as-you-throw program in communities of any size.       


"About Pay-As-You-Throw." PayAsYouThrow. The Recycling Foundation, n.d. Web. 4 Sept. 2018. 

"Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet." EPA. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, July 2018. PDF. 4 Sept. 2018.