Talking Trash

Below is a letter to the editor of the Bristol Phoenix that Lindsay Green, community activist extraordinaire and creator of the Preserve Bristol blog, asked me to write. Let’s hope it sparks some interesting debate!

As the Phoenix correctly noted in a recent editorial (“Mandatory Recycling”, Nov. 19), Bristol must improve its recycling program – and it should do so as soon as possible. Indeed, with the Johnston landfill nearing its capacity and a requirement that we nearly triple our recycling rate by 2012 (or face steep fines) there are precious little natural resources, money and time for us to waste. Keeping that in mind, the “no-bin-no-barrel” (NBNB) policy highlighted in the paper should be considered just one piece in a larger zero-waste plan to help boost recycling and get more value for our tax dollars. Vital to such a comprehensive long-term strategy is another incentive based program known as pay-as-you-throw (PAYT).

Unfortunately, unlike most public services such as our fire/police departments and educational system, which exist to provide direct benefits to the community, our current trash service often perpetuates environmentally and economically destructive behavior. The fixed costs (i.e. personnel, equipment, etc.) and the variable costs (i.e. hauling and tipping fees based on the amount of trash created) are both paid through taxes, masking the detrimental effect that disposing unlimited quantities of refuse has on the environment and the town’s bottom line.

However, with PAYT, residents are charged for each bag of trash they generate but receive a tax break by only paying up front for the program’s fixed costs. Thus, there would be a built-in incentive to reduce waste as each of us would be personally responsible for lowering the variable costs to make the savings from the tax break stick. People who throw out less trash will no longer subsidize those who toss larger amounts of trash, making PAYT a very equitable and effective approach. In fact, according to RI’s own DEM website, PAYT programs increase recycling rates dramatically — resulting in an average of 15-28% reduction in the amount of trash disposed, sometimes reaching double or triple what they had been previously.

In addition to NBNB and PAYT, Bristol should make recycling available to businesses and condominiums and expand its composting facility beyond only yard waste. An educational campaign is also essential to inform residents of any plan the town eventually implements, but the longer we delay the worse off we will be when the state’s mountainous landfill inevitably closes and we are left to stew in our own mess. So, if we start the process now towards a zero-waste plan, we will have a much smaller hill to climb when that fateful day arrives.

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