Statewide Pay-As-You-Throw Idea Moves Ahead

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

JOHNSTON, R.I. — The operators of the state’s Central Landfill recently took another step toward implementing a new approach to trash collection.

On Nov. 19, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) awarded $126,600 to a waste specialist, WasteZero of North Andover, Mass., to take an in-depth look at statewide pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) trash collection. The program, which is already the norm in Tiverton and Middletown, typically requires residents to buy special trash bags for their curbside waste collection or the waste they bring to a transfer station.

The benefits, according to WasteZero, is a 36 percent reduction in trash and a 46 percent increase in recycling. The sale of bags also cuts municipal spending and brings in a new revenue stream for the city or town, or in this case, for RIRRC. In most PAYT programs, a standard trash bag costs $2 apiece.

RIRRC already paid WasteZero $50,000 for a preliminary analysis on PAYT. It’s giving the concept serious consideration because it promises to add 25 years to the life of the landfill beyond its projected out-of-space date of 2025. PAYT also would keep RIRRC’s budget in the black for decades, according to officials.

RIRRC executive director Michael OConnell projects that the public-private state agency will start losing money in 2017. The main reason for the shortfall is the artificially low fee assessed to cities and towns for delivering a ton of waste to the landfill. Despite efforts to raise it, the tipping fee has been stuck at $32 per ton since 1992.

OConnell said RIRRC has cut staff and programs because of the low tipping fee. “We’re gutting this corporation to preserve this $32 fee," he said.

The unanimous vote by the RIRRC board of directors comes a month after members expressed concern that a statewide PAYT program will meet significant public and political resistance.

At the Nov. 19 meeting, an attorney for RIRRC told the board that it likely has the authority to adopt statewide PAYT without consent from the General Assembly. However, he recommended that the decision go through the Legislature to avoid any legal challenges.

OConnell said RIRRC and WasteZero will hold meetings next with planners, politicians and municipal officials, thus delaying any legislation until 2016.

The board agreed with OConnell that the decision to advance the PAYT is necessary to address the long-term sustainability of the Central Landfill. Without PAYT, RIRRC will consider a push to raise the municipal tipping fee to as much as $65 per ton.

“If we don’t move in one direction or another, we’ll be out of time,” OConnell said.

Several commissioners, such as Joseph White of North Kingstown, supported PAYT, but only if cities and towns could join on their own. This approach, however, would likely curtail the revenue RIRRC needs to stay in the black and thus necessitate a higher tipping fee, OConnell said.

Commissioner Jeanne Boyle, the director of planning in East Providence, said the vote to pay WasteZero is not an endorsement. “It needs to be clear that we’re not ready to endorse one particular program at this point,” she said.

WasteZero brought in the former Worcester commissioner of public works, Bob Moylan, to explain the transition to PAYT. His city adopted the program in 1993 in the face of much public resistance. Moylan said much of the opposition disappeared after two months, when the city's volume of trash and trash expenses were cut in half.

“It’s the kind of medicine a mother would give you to make you feel better,” Moylan said.

Middletown also struggled to embrace the change when it launched PAYT in 2007.

“It was not received with open arms at first,” said Will Cronin, recycling coordinator for Middletown, after the meeting. “But everyone agreed that something had to be done. They felt this was a fair and equitable way to do it."