In the not-so-distant future, Nashvillians could pay a price if they rely too heavily on the old-fashioned garbage can instead of the enviro-friendly recycling bin.
Taking cues from other cities, the Metro Council this week is expected to finalize sweeping changes to the Metro code relating to solid waste management. The council will vote whether to gradually phase in a host of Metro Public Works-endorsed initiatives over the next four years aimed at increasing recycling while decreasing the amount of waste diverted to landfills.
Headlining the changes, fused collectively into one council ordinance, is a proposal to adopt what’s known as “pay as you throw.” In time, Metro would begin to charge monthly fees to households that use more than one trash container, a policy that would apply solely to those who live in the urban services district, which generally refers to the older inner core of the city. The idea is to create a financial incentive — or penalty, depending how one looks at it — to encourage recycling. Ditch the trash container; embrace the recycling bin, the logic goes.
The long-awaited proposals, including “pay as you throw,” have two points of origin: Some came out of Mayor Karl Dean’s Green Ribbon Committee. Others were outlined as goals in the Davidson County Regional Solid Waste Management’s 10-year plan.
The ordinance, which enjoys near-universal support, has easily cleared two council votes with little deliberation. Third and final reading is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 17, when the bill is almost assured approval, barring some last-minute hurdle.
The big question is whether the plan goes far enough.
A minority would pay
Proponents say labeling Metro’s plan “pay as you throw” misses the point. “It’s not pay as you throw,” said Billy Lynch, director of the public works department. “It’s an incentive to promote recycling throughout Davidson County.”
According to Lynch, approximately 124,000 households within the urban service district rely on Public Works for trash collection. Of those, 106,000 households use only one container, which holds 96 gallons of trash.
“Over the next four years, our goal is to work on those 18,000 individuals that have more than one container, to urge them and educate them to utilize the green containers for recycling,” Lynch said. “We will give them all the free recycling carts they need.
“We can reduce the waste stream, while at the same time, reduce the amount of money that Public Works and the city pays in disposing in landfills,” Lynch added.
Beginning in July 2012, under the pay-as-you-throw plan, waste pickup services for households in the urban services district would be limited to two carts. By July 2014, the program would be ramped up, allowing for only one cart per household. Metro would apply fees to households that use more than the allotted number of trash containers.
Extra trash containers are currently priced at $65 each, Lynch said, which wouldn’t change under the new law. What’s new is a fee — projected to be less than $5 per month — for households that use more than two trash containers by 2012 and more than one in 2014.
A 2006 study (the most recent available) by the Environmental Protection Agency showed more than 7,000 U.S. cities have adopted some variation of pay-as-you-throw, with the highest concentrations in the Northeast, Great Lakes and far West regions. In Minnesota, every city uses a pay-as-you-throw approach. Mississippi has zero cities that do. Tennessee is lagging behind as well, boasting only two pay-as-you-throw cities.
Some plans are more ambitious than others. In San Francisco, there is “Fantastic 3,” in which households receive three 32-gallon containers — one for trash, one for recyclable items and a third for food waste, yard trimmings and soiled paper, which are turned into compost. All residents there can dispose as much recyclable material as they like but are faced with a surcharge for too much trash or waste material. Proponents say the program has paid off, with more than 66 percent of San Francisco’s waste diverted from landfills in recent years.
Most pay-as-you-throw approaches resemble Metro’s more modest gambit.
“I can’t make a real good argument against this plan when you look at the facts” said Metro Councilman Jim Hodge, one of the council’s few conservatives. “An unlimited amount of recycle carts are available under this plan. That’s going to make a difference in the long run.”
It’s not that there is anyone against the plan, per se. It’s just reasonable to ask whether focusing on a mere 18,000 households really makes much of a dent in terms of diverting trash from landfills.
“I do think this is a step in the right direction,” said Councilman Jason Holleman, known for his environmental stripes. “But I’d like to do it sooner and on a larger scale.”
Among steps Holleman believes Metro should consider is expanding curbside recycling pickup services to include glass. “We could then consider a complete transition to pay-as-you-throw that would help to offset any cost to glass pickup,” he said.
Getting to the suburbs
Overshadowed by the pay-as-you-throw plan is an initiative aimed at expanding curbside recycling to include households within the general services district and multi-family dwellings throughout the city. Both currently rely on recycling drop-off centers.
Specifically, a condition in the ordinance would require all private trash haulers subcontracted by Public Works to provide recycling services by July 2013. Private haulers would be required to submit a plan spelling out the recycling services they plan to provide and the fee they would charge.
“The main thing that this will help improve is in the general services district, where it will offer more recycling to single-family dwellings,” Lynch said. “And in both the general services and urban services districts it will offer recycling options to multi-family dwellings such as condominium complexes, apartment complexes and so forth.”
In 2008, a company called EarthSavers began offering curbside recycling for a $10 monthly fee to residents in Bellevue, which is in the general services district. The program later expanded to Old Hickory, Antioch, Hermitage and parts of Madison.
The ordinance would also gradually place prohibitions on what material can be placed in waste containers.
By 2011, yard waste, which refers to grass, leaves and other clippings, would be banned from the city’s waste collection services. Instead, the public works department would pick up yard waste — required to be stuffed into biodegradable bags — as part of its brush collection services. By 2013, the waste-stream ban would include corrugated cardboard, and by 2015 the law would apply to electronic waste, such as TVs and computers.
“This is meant to reduce what we put into the waste stream,” Lynch said. “Not only is it environmentally sound, but from a financial standpoint to our taxpayers, if we reduce the amount of tonnage going into landfills, then we, as a department, save on what we pay for disposal costs.”