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Illegal Diversion

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When communities first consider pay-as-you-throw, illegal diversion is one of the most frequently cited concerns. Residents, elected officials, and others often assume that charging a fee per container of waste will encourage some households to illegally dump or burn trash. This concern often turns out to be more a perceived barrier than a real issue, however.

Most communities with pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) have found that illegal diversion has proven to be less of a concern than anticipated-and that there are steps they can take to minimize its occurrence. Typically, communities report that illegal diversion can be an issue regardless of the way in which residents are charged for solid waste management. Communities with or without PAYT sometimes must deal with waste residents have dumped by roadsides or in undeveloped areas, burned in their backyards, or deposited into commercial dumpsters. Illegal diversion often occurs prior to implementing PAYT and tends to persist at some level following implementation as well. (See "Three Cities Report on Illegal Diversion," below.)

Research conducted into illegal diversion supports this perspective. In a study by researchers at Duke University (described in the Fall 1997 PAYT Bulletin), communities with PAYT indicated that the dumping and burning of trash was a smaller problem than anticipated. Forty-eight percent of the cities and towns saw no change in illegal diversion, while 6 percent felt it declined after PAYT was implemented. Just 19 percent felt it increased. (Twenty-seven percent had no information.)

Photo of No Dumping Sign] According to communities with PAYT, the key to minimizing the potential for illegal diversion is to create a significant deterrent. Communities often implement fair but aggressive enforcement policies at the same time as the PAYT program. The most common step solid waste planners take is to pass ordinances (if they do not already exist) or take other legal steps that clearly establish illegal diversion as a violation. These measures often allow enforcement personnel to search abandoned trash for indications of its origins. Fines or other penalties also are usually included as part of these ordinances.

In addition to legal action, some communities recommend sending letters to violators-or even publishing violations in the local newspaper. Some deterrents are relatively simple to implement. To prevent residential waste from being left in commercial dumpsters, for example, planners can encourage or assist local businesses to lock up these units.

Communities with PAYT often emphasize that one of the most effective deterrents is simply to ensure that residents have as many legal options for waste diversion as possible. Recycling, composting of yard trimmings, and other complementary programs allow residents to significantly reduce trash disposal amounts and save money-making illegal diversion less likely.

In tandem with enforcement, communities typically report that public education and outreach can help to prevent illegal diversion from becoming a problem. Simply informing residents about the program and how they can participate will facilitate greater compliance with its rules and procedures. To help allay residents' concerns, communities also can include information in their outreach efforts about how they plan to use enforcement and penalties to control illegal diversion.

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Additional resources

To find out more about illegal diversion, visit the research studies that have been conducted on this topic to date. For answers to common questions about this topic, visit illegal diversion in the Frequent Questions section of this Web site.

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Three cities report on illegal diversion

Concern over illegal dumping and burning is often cited as the major barrier to acceptance of PAYT programs. Many communities charging a variable rate for trash services point out, however, that they have not observed significant increases in these activities. For these cities and towns, education and enforcement have been the most effective ways to prevent illegal diversion.

In Mansfield, Connecticut, officials report that illegal dumping did not increase significantly with the introduction of a PAYT system. To prevent illegal dumping, Mansfield has relied primarily on public education. When necessary, however, the solid waste department also has worked with the police department to track license plates and identify violators.

Seattle, Washington, has also found no association between implementation of PAYT and an increase in illegal dumping. In fact, 60 to 80 percent of the illegal dumping incidents in the city are associated with remodeling waste, old refrigerators, and construction debris-waste that the city suspects comes from small contractors who do hauling on the side.

The city of Pasadena, California, reports similar findings. A survey conducted at the city's landfill indicated that Pasadena was disposing of one-third more trash than was indicated in a waste generation study completed in the city. Pasadena suspects that this waste is made up of construction and demolition debris dropped off by small contractors.

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