Soundings

Garbage In, Garbage Out
Summer 1994

Faced with environmental concerns and the rising cost of garbage disposal, municipalities are looking for ways to encourage recycling and reduce the amount of garbage their residents produce. Seattle pioneered the practice of charging by the bag for garbage collected. Households buy stickers to paste onto each garbage bag, and waste collectors only pick up bags bearing a sticker. But a study of “per-unit charges” indicates that bag fees are not as effective as they may appear.

Researchers Don Fullerton of Carnegie Mellon University and Thomas Kinnaman of the University of Virginia note that the households they studied tended to stuff significantly more trash into each bag, somewhat undercutting the pay-by-the-bag program’s goal of cutting down the total amount of garbage. Fullerton and Kinnaman studied 75 households in Charlottesville, Virginia, both before and after the institution of an eighty-cent fee for every 32-gallon bag of garbage collected. They found that the average household reduced its volume of trash by 37 percent, but the weight of the garbage fell by only 14 percent.

Furthermore, the researchers estimated that illegal disposal accounted for more than one-quarter of the total reduction in household trash. Charlottesville residents slipped some of their garbage into dumpsters on the University of Virginia campus or behind commercial establishments downtown. Fullerton and Kinnaman predict even more dumpster-stuffing and illegal littering in a large, heterogeneous city such as New York.

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