Price and behavior

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The official word out of City Hall has it that “pay-as-you-throw” garbage collection is off and running with only minor glitches to mar the new mode of disposal. People are recycling more and sending less waste to the landfill. Some have been fined for failure to comply with the new rules but Public Works Director Jeff Hackbart says the violations are fewer than expected. Nor has there been a huge increase in illegal dumping on back roads, which county officials feared would result from the city’s new collection policy.
Our unofficial (and unscientific) impression is that a number of city residents still chafe under the volume-based system that took effect in February. Resentment arising from the previous City Commission’s decision to impose a $5 monthly fee for collection to enhance revenue has been redirected toward the heavy-handed tactics the current commission used to incentivize recycling. People who chose the smallest trash cart get free pickup while the medium size is $4 a month and only the largest container carries a higher charge, $12. Some still yearn for the “good old days” when they could simply drag their trash bags to the curb and let city workers take over from there. Now they have to roll the carts out and roll them back in after pickup crews use mechanical arms to load the waste into the hoppers.
The monthly fee is not the only expense. The city issued 12 “overflow” bags with each new cart, so residents would have an option when the container ran out of room. Additional bags are available from the city for $3. It’s not hard to figure out that this is a lot more expensive than buying a box of brand-name bags at the grocery store. The high price isn’t because of superior quality. Unlike a private merchant, city government isn’t trying to sell more plastic bags. It actually hopes to distribute fewer of them as more people appreciate the rewards of making do with their chosen container size. The cost is a form of behavior control.
This brings to mind the ongoing debate over the “individual mandate” of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which would require everyone to buy health insurance whether they want it or not. The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling over the constitutionality of official commands that Americans buy a particular product. Of course, health insurance and garbage bag mandates are apples and oranges because Frankfort isn’t forcing anyone to buy its bags. Just the same, people who generate more household waste than their containers can hold feel compelled to purchase them as a practical matter. Substitute a cheaper version and you could end up paying a fine.
The most common violation, according to Hackbart, is not misuse of the garbage carts but of the recycling carts that residents received along with them. The latter are intended only for recyclable materials; putting other waste in them – such as plastic grocery bags and yard debris – is forbidden. When these materials go into the wrong container, it causes problems for the Lexington plant that processes Frankfort’s recyclables. The city still collects yard waste separately, at no additional charge.
It’s yet to be determined whether the savings on landfill tipping fees and the revenue from sale of recycled materials will offset new costs resulting from the program, including the $1 million lease-purchase of trash carts. If not, fees may rise – along with citizen displeasure.
Everyone should recycle. It makes sense both economically and environmentally. However, we wish the city had tried harder to sell the public on voluntary participation without manipulative pricing to strong-arm us into doing what’s right.

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