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Got Garbage? Raleigh Might Consider "Pay As You Throw"

A picture of a chair in front of a pile of garbage.
Rebecca Martinez

The Raleigh City Council wants to reduce the amount of garbage it sends to a landfill in Southern Wake County.

Raleigh pays about $33 for each ton of garbage it buries, but the city can make $30 on each ton it recycles. This morning, Raleigh's Solid waste director is presenting a list of options to increase recycling. One company in town, WasteZero, says it has the best option.

Packing The Trash Into The Landfill: How Trash Is Handled Now

Before considering this alternative, here's what happens with trash now. Raleigh trucks about 100,000 tons of garbage to the South Wake Landfill every year.

At the landfill, the "ground" shakes as a bulldozer further compresses the hundreds of thousands of tons of trash beneath it. It will then move loose new trash into place, and a separate compressing vehicle will pack it down. Seagulls swarm the scene, occasionally swooping down to scavenge for a meal.

Mixed in with the dirty diapers and chicken bones are soda bottles and computer paper. They’re recyclables. The people of Raleigh are only recycling about 35-percent their waste, and the city council says that's not enough.

Fred Battle, Raleigh’s Director of Solid Waste Services, says, “If people are not recycling, you have to do something to change their behavior. You can two it two ways: You could force it, or give incentives, that's the more gentle approach. But City county have to make that decision which approach do they want.”

Pay As You Throw: A New Way To Take Out The Trash

One possibility would mean big changes for Raleigh. It’s called "Pay As You Throw." Basically, instead of taxing people or charging every household a utility fee for trash pickup, the city would charge people based on the amount of garbage they throw out. In this scenario you would be able to recycle for free.

“You're only paying for what you use, so that's very popular,” says Battle, adding, “it's an incentive to recycle.”

That's how WasteZero sees it, too. They’re a waste-reduction company and they contract with about 800 communities around the country to set up Pay As You Throw systems.

Waste Zero just set up its headquarters in Raleigh and they hired a local to speak for them. Former North Carolina State Senator Cal Cunningham is vice president of Government Affairs. “Raleigh is our home,” says Cunningham. “What we think is that Pay As You Throw is the next generation in innovation for the city.”

What WasteZero typically does is make a customized trash bag with the city’s seal on it. They then distribute the bags to local grocery stores where residents where people would normally buy Glad or Hefty bags. But, they’re a little more expensive.

“When you buy one that has the official city seal on it, there's a fee associated with it. Often, 50 cents, 75 cent. In some communities up to a $1.50 and $2,” explains Cunningham. “So what the hauler does is they will only pick up your trash if it's in the official city trash bag.”

WasteZero keeps some of that money. The rest goes to the city to cover trash pickup.

WasteZero Not Available In North Carolina Yet

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Here's Raleigh Solid Waste Director Fred Battle again.

“Usually, you get a lot of public resistance if you try to implement something like this. So, you might see an increase in illegal dumping,” says Battle. “And you're gonna need more code enforcement and more administrative personnel. You'll probably have to try to change your ordinances.”

WasteZero isn’t contracting with any cities in North Carolina yet. They do have a lot of partnerships in New England, where communities have less space to dump their trash. They had to address this problem sooner.

Pay As You Throw has taken hold in Massachusetts.  Worcester uses some of WasteZero’s special bags. They’re bright yellow, and people set them out next to their recycling bins.

Robert Fiore is with Worcester’s Department of Public Works and Parks. He says non-compliant residents are easy to spot. They face pressure from neighbors and potential fines from the city.  

“Here you have a program where you say, okay, here's what goes in your trash bag. All these other things go into your recycling bin. One thing cost you money, the trash bag, one thing is quote-unquote "free." You don't pay anymore, you don't pay any more. You don't pay a per-bin fee to recycle,” says Fiore.

“People get it, and so they recycle as much as they can, cause they're trying to avoid filling up that bag that's costing them money.”

Fiore says Worcester had been recycling about three percent of its waste before it set up Pay As You Throw 21 years ago. It jumped to 40 percent almost immediately.

Worcester signed on with Waste Zero eight years ago. The company really just provides the bags for the city. But in other places, WasteZero is more of a Pay As You Throw consultant. Every city comes with its own obstacles.

Raleigh, for example, doesn't pick up trash bags from the street: The city has already invested in trucks that use automatic arms to pick up the standard rolling trash containers, an expensive obstacle to overcome.

That’ll be on Fred Battle’s mind when he goes before City Council's Budget & Economic Development Committee this morning.

“I'm not gonna make any kind of recommendation,” Battle says. We just mainly want council to be aware of everything, the pros and the cons, and it's up to the Mayor and City Council to make the decision.”

Other options on the table are private composting, beefing up recycling at apartment complexes, and a more high-tech approach to measuring who's actually recycling.

Battle expects the public will be invited to chime in before long.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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