It is easy to assume that trash pickup is free. After all, it is just one of the bills you pay each month and the charges rarely fluctuate—if anything, garbage collections fees just increase incrementally over time. Chances are your municipality just rolls it into the power or water bill. Of course, the disposal of garbage really is not free—you are paying for the garbage trucks, landfill space, and the planning and logistics one way or another.
So if you are fairly diligent about recycling, do not buy a lot of junk or processed food, and barely toss any trash in your garbage bin, why should you pay the same rate as your neighbor whose bin is filled to capacity? Koreans for years have solved this problem: residents must buy specially printed garbage bags that are sold just about everywhere, from supermarkets to corner stores. Recycling bins for glass, plastic, and metal, are widely available. But non-recyclable trash or food waste must be placed in those specially-printed bags. And if you are caught using a supermarket bag, the neighbors’ wrath and a fine are the result. It is one way that cities like Seoul have managed shrinking landfill space.
One town in Maine has tripled recycling rates while reducing expenses 50%. Sanford residents implemented a trash metering system that requires residents to pay by the bag for curbside collection. After one month, the 50% decrease in garbage tonnage far exceeded the town manager’s expectations. If projections hold true, this town of 21,000 in southwest Maine can save about $250,000 in garbage tipping fees, crucial as the city will face a 20% price increase in the service after the new year.
Over 150 municipalities in Maine have shifted to a trash metering system, and other towns and cities across the US are joining them as well. One program is WasteZero, a firm that works with about 300 cities in transforming their waste management systems. According to the company, these towns reduce their landfill waste about 43%, while together collectively net about $65 million, either in avoided disposal fees or revenues from recycled materials.
Some may balk at such a system, but in the end, it is about fairness—those who use less of something, pay less, while others who create more trash have to pay more to haul it away.