To those of us who care about economic fairness and efficiency, the best approach to life is to connect the costs of a behavior with the behavior itself and allow people to make educated choices with perfect information. The current debate about “Pay As You Throw” (PAYT) illustrates that this is often easier said than done. The issue behind PAYT is that we generate too much waste, the cost of disposing this waste is increasing, and short of simply producing less waste, the options to reduce this waste — recycling and composting — are also expensive. Complicating this conversation is that Greenwich does not offer municipal curbside pickup services and there are several types of waste generators.
It has been pointed out that Greenwich does not charge private trash haulers tipping fees. It has also been pointed out that if tipping fees are introduced, these haulers will pass these costs on to their customers, assuming they cannot avoid these costs by going to cheaper transfer stations (which do not exist). Greenwich should impose tipping fees, and the trash haulers will pass at least some of these costs on, but it is still the right thing to do because it connects revenue with expenditure in the town budget. But tipping fees are unlikely to reduce waste and the associated cost of its disposal, unless trash haulers are willing to invest the time and effort to measure reductions in the amount of waste generated and reward customers accordingly.
Putting a price tag on trash disposal by way of specially marked garbage bags does create an incentive to reduce waste. This is a user fee, not a tax, but whatever we call it, it is an expense that is new to Greenwich residents, and the current suggestion of $2 per bag will be a noticeable increase to household expenses. There is the hope that households will recycle a greater portion of their waste, but there is also a risk that more trash will find its way into recycling, which will only compound our waste disposal problems. In a parallel effort we need to clean up our recycling stream and create new markets for recyclables.
The answer then, is to introduce tipping fees and bags for purchase (though at a cost less than what is currently being suggested), in order to generate needed revenue and change behavior.
While individual households can always do more to eliminate and reduce waste, the greatest change will probably be seen in our public institutions and local businesses. Case in point, for as long as I have been a Greenwich school parent, our PTAs have been working hard to encourage recycling in our schools. When successful this has reduced the waste stream by as much as 60 percent. But school recycling programs have their challenges. We already ask a lot of our teachers, they should not be expected to oversee recycling programs. Many of our schools do not have enough parent volunteers to run a successful program. Janitors are expensive, but if we price waste disposal correctly, these labor costs can demonstrate their worth.
Lastly, concern has been voiced that imposing new charges for waste disposal will be a burden to residents on fixed incomes. That is true, this is a regressive scheme in that sense. A fair way to address this concern would be to provide every household and business a “reasonable” waste allowance of free bags. That will add an administrative cost to the PAYT program, albeit one that may be deemed fair.
Taking out the garbage is no fun, but rather than an onerous chore, Greenwich should see this as a collective game. We are capable of sorting this out. Ready, set, go!
Janet Stone McGuigan is an Old Greenwich resident.