User-pay Garbage Makes Polluters Pay

by Carl Duivenvoorden ( Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

When I lived in an urban neighbourhood years ago, I remember feeling ripped off every garbage day. The reason was this: even as I’d strive to limit my trash to a bag or less, up and down the street heaps of four, five or more bags a week were common. Since garbage collection is covered by property taxes, it didn’t seem fair: the people who put out the least trash were subsidizing those who put out the most.

So it’s refreshing to hear that Saint John city council is considering implementing a user-pay garbage collection system.

Basic human behaviour

At first glance, it’s easy to scoff that this is just another tax grab by a cash-strapped council. But here’s another way to view it: a legitimate effort to reduce the cost and environmental impacts of trash collection and disposal by appealing to basic human behaviour.

Most of us aren’t motivated to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do; we’re motivated by the stuff in our wallets. Anything without a price tag is easy to ignore; anything that costs gets our attention.

Garbage collection does cost New Brunswickers millions, of course, but the cost is hidden in that flat annual fee called property taxes. So once the yearly bill has been paid, putting out limitless amounts of trash seems like an entitlement, and there is zero incentive to reduce, reuse or recycle – especially in situations where recycling is a hassle.

Big savings potential

But what would happen if the cost of garbage collection and disposal were taken out of our property tax bills, and made a separate item that we each paid for based on the amount of trash we produced?

First, our property taxes would go down, because one of the bigger expenses those taxes cover would be removed from that budget.

Secondly, we’d recycle more, because suddenly there would be an incentive to sort recyclables out of our trash streams. Unfortunately, not many of us do that today: the average bag of trash at NB landfills is brimming with materials that don’t belong in a landfill in the first place. (Less wealthy and wasteful societies refer to such materials as resources.)

More recycling would allow for more efficient and user-friendly recycling programs, so that recycling would become easier than putting out trash.

More recycling might also spur a home-grown recycling industry, creating local jobs. It surprises most people to learn that many recyclables collected in NB are shipped halfway around the world to China.

Thirdly, we’d produce less trash because everybody wants to save money. A convenient side effect would be that our landfills would last much longer. Considering how expensive they are to build and how hard it is to find a new site when on old one is full, that’s a major plus.

The concept of user pay has been around for ages in our society: it’s how we already pay for things like electricity, gasoline and groceries. For trash, many approaches are possible, such as specific garbage bags that residents must buy, or different sized dumpsters that can be rented for different annual fees. Often, residents are allowed one or two “free” bags a week and pay just for the extra.

Keys to success

The success of user pay systems hinges on a few key points.

First, property taxes must go down accordingly, or else user pay garbage really is just a tax grab.

Secondly, a comprehensive, convenient, user-friendly recycling program is essential; curbside pickup is typically the best option. Hazardous waste and oversized trash need to be handled separately as well.

Thirdly and critically, resources must be available to educate people on the system and prevent illegal dumping, which is perhaps the biggest impediment to user-pay trash programs. Rural areas have a special challenge because of their abundance of back roads; when it comes to saving a buck, it’s amazing how much gas some people will burn. But as with smoking and drinking and driving, social pressure can play a big role in reducing littering.

A worthy objective

User pay trash systems have been successfully implemented in places like Toronto, Victoria and Yellowknife, so why not here? A way to lower taxes, make polluters pay and be kinder to the earth. In my book, that’s fair.