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Volume- vs. Weight-Based Programs

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Communities considering pay-as-you-throw must determine whether they will charge residents for waste management services based on the volume or weight of their trash. The two program types have very different design and equipment requirements.

Most communities charge residents by volume, using either bags or cans (or tags or stickers indicating specific can or bag sizes) as their program's unit of measure. A small number of communities are trying weight-based programs, under which collection crews measure at the curb the amount of waste a household sets out for collection. Solid waste planners need to decide which approach to use, based on overall program goals, budget constraints, and other factors.

Volume-based programs

Under a volume-based system, residents are charged for waste collection based on the number and size of waste containers that they use. In some communities, households are charged directly for waste collection (usually through direct billing) based on the number of bags or cans set out at the curb. Others require their residents to purchase special trash bags, tags, or stickers that include the cost of waste collection in the purchase price. Communities basing their programs on trash volumes typically select a rate structure design that includes one of these two options.

Volume-based systems tend to be significantly less expensive to set up, operate, and administer than weight-based programs. In some communities, simple programs using bags, tags, or stickers have been implemented without requiring a large number of waste management changes or incurring major new expenses. As a result, the vast majority of pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) programs currently are based on volume.

One potential disadvantage of volume-based programs is trash compaction. Since residents pay based on the size of their containers, there is a temptation to try to fit as much trash as possible into each bag or can. This can make the task of picking up trash harder for collection crews. It also may reduce the waste reduction incentive for residents. To address this, many cities and towns have placed a weight limit per bag or can and enforce this limit during curbside collections.

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Weight-based programs

Photo of Containers and ScaleUnder weight-based systems, waste is weighed at the curb and residents are billed for collection and disposal by the pound. Depending on the equipment used, the program can either require residents to use standard, municipally supplied cans or allow them to continue using their own cans. Weight-based systems offer the most direct incentive to reduce waste: every pound of trash that residents prevent, recycle, or compost results in direct savings. In addition, residents often easily understand this type of system and perceive it as fair.

Weight-based systems tend to be more expensive to implement and operate than a volume-based approach. Special equipment is required, including truck-mounted scales for weighing waste and some type of system (for example, bar-coding on waste cans) for recording this information and entering it into a computer. Residents then need to be billed for this service, which may increase a municipality's staffing needs.

As a result, very few communities have fully implemented weight-based PAYT systems. Currently, however, innovations in equipment to weigh and record data are beginning to make these systems more feasible for some communities. For example, bar codes or radio-frequency identification tags are declining in price, scales can weigh cans on an incline or in motion, and computerized data collection and billing systems have been improved.

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