BASHAM: Tipping Fees – No Failure and No Regrets

Submitted by Mike Basham in response to the recent LTE by Julie DesChamps (Waste Free Greenwich: The Honeymoon Is Over – Tipping Fees Fail Jan 29, 2024)

Regret. That is what the proponents of Pay as You Throw (PAYT) experienced in May 2020, when the Representative Town Meeting voted 198 to 17 with five abstentions to postpone indefinitely any further consideration of PAYT.

A year later, proponents attempted to place it before the newly elected RTM via an RTM committee, but this effort was voted down as well. It is possible that Ms. DesChamps is hopeful that a new, possibly more moderate RTM might be receptive to PAYT. However, I have no doubt that a clear understanding of the issue would result in another rejection.

PAYT was positioned as a way to produce revenue to cover the cost of disposing of the Town’s recyclables. The Town used to get paid for its recyclables, but a dramatic decline in demand resulted in haulers charging to take recyclables away.

This unexpected hit to the Town’s budget needed to be covered by additional revenue sources. Under PAYT, it was expected that citizens would buy special bags to dispose of their garbage. The hope was that requiring citizens to pay for each bag would not only generate the needed revenue, but also encourage more recycling, and incentivize people to create less garbage. As enticing as it seems, this approach was never going to accomplish any of these goals in Greenwich. Let me explain why.

As Co-Chair of the First Selectman’s Waste Management Committee, I participated in the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (DEEP) working group focused on PAYT as a way to reduce the amount of municipal solid waste statewide. As Ms. DesChamps stated, the trash-to-energy facility located in Hartford was going to be closed in 2022. This facility represented 25% of the state’s capacity to burn municipal solid waste (MSW) to generate energy, and its closure would result in higher tipping fees at other facilities and added costs to ship MSW to out of state landfills. DEEP was doing the prudent thing by evaluating all options that might alleviate the impending problem.

As part of the working group’s meetings, there were two presentations by towns that had implemented PAYT in the early and mid-nineties. In both instances, neither community had had successful recycling programs. After implementing PAYT, not surprisingly, both towns saw significant increases in recycling. Why would someone pay for a bag to dispose of stuff that they can get rid of for free? Naturally MSW went down, and recycling went up. There was less MSW to dispose of and more recycling that towns then were getting paid for. Surprisingly, these two towns were the only presentations made to the working group.

I was very cognizant of the lack of other presentations touting similar successes, particularly any subsequent to those from the mid-nineties. At one point in the follow up discussions, I pointedly asked all of the working group participants if they knew of any other municipalities that had implemented PAYT with comparable results in the prior 15 years, and if so, to please put me in touch with them. I never received any responses from the over one hundred plus group of participants.

Greenwich implemented a recycling program back in the nineties, which resulted in an initial reduction in MSW. In 2012, the Town implemented single stream recycling, and by 2013 total MSW had declined by another almost 20%. To suggest that instituting PAYT in 2020 would have reduced MSW by 40% ignores the significant reductions already achieved by the prior increases in recycling. The same experience in the other communities. It is clear that for PAYT to be effective, it was going to have to generate much more revenue than projected to cover the costs of hauling away both recyclables and MSW, and the projected bag costs would have to be much higher than anticipated. Enter tipping and permit fees.

The simple fact is that the increasing costs required additional funds that had to come from somewhere. Increasing taxes or imposing user fees were the only pragmatic solutions. The RTM opted for user fees.

There are no more active landfills in Connecticut, and the State’s waste to energy burn volume has declined by 25%. As a result, there clearly needed to be a reduction in MSW volume, and Ms. DesChamps makes a number of recommendations to reduce MSW, some practical and others less so. The First Selectman’s Waste Committee zeroed in on food scrapes, which are estimated to be almost 25% of MSW, as an important and practical target for MSW reduction.

Since 2013, the level of MSW in Town has remained in a range of 36 to 37 thousand tons until the recent reduction to twenty-five thousand tons due to diversion to other locations. Given this current almost 30% reduction, it would seem that setting a municipal goal of an additional 60% waste reduction seems to be wishful thinking. Also, to suggest that “the reduction of waste through prevention” in a wealthy community like Greenwich, while noble in its intent, is politically impractical as well.

While I am very cognizant of the need to address the State’s MSW problems, and I admire the goals of Ms. DesChamps and Waste Free Greenwich, to describe tipping fees as a failure is to ignore the obvious facts. They accomplished everything they were expected to. They covered the increasing costs of disposing of the Town’s recyclables and MSW. They resulted in a reduction in the total number of tons of MSW the Town must dispose of because haulers were incented to take MSW to other locations with lower tipping fees. Without a doubt, for Greenwich, the user fees were the correct solution. Knowing the history and the lack of uptake in Connecticut over the years, it was obvious to me and others, that PAYT was never going to be the solution. From the unique perspective of Greenwich, it deserves a spot in the graveyard of well-intentioned, but unworkable solutions.

Mike Basham is a former Vice Chair of the BET; Chair of the RTM Finance Committee and Co-Chair of the First Selectman’s Waste Management Committee.

Note: this letter was updated to say that since 2013, the level of MSW in Town has remained in a range of 36 to 37 thousand tons (not millions) until the recent reduction to twenty-five thousand tons (not millions) due to diversion to other locations.