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Eco Etiquette: Help Tame My Trash!

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I'm watching my husband schlep our two huge garbage receptacles back from the curb and I'm thinking that aside from the expense of garbage pickup (a fortune here in Pasadena, CA), throwing out this much stuff every week is just insane. I try not to use "disposable" anything if I can help it, but I need a few more good tips for cutting down on all this waste.

-Mandy

Waste not, want not. Well unfortunately in the United States, we want a lot of stuff -- 32 times more than in the developing world -- and we have the trash bags to prove it: The amount of garbage that Americans produce each year has steadily increased, from 88 million tons in 1960 to nearly 250 million tons in 2008. This isn't just population growth, either; per capita waste generation has also grown over that time, to an extra two pounds per person per day.

What to do with all this waste? Unlike in Europe, where new "clean" incinerators make trash useful by converting it into heat and electricity, we in the US still dump the majority of our waste into landfills. And while land and landfill space in this country are, generally speaking, relatively abundant, communities in more densely populated areas are discovering that "out of sight, out of mind" is a costly solution: New York City, for example, pays more than $300 million a year to export more than 4 million tons of waste to landfills as far away as Virginia.

There's also a high environmental price tag (fuel and associated carbon emissions) attached to transporting all that trash, especially when you consider that more than a quarter of all municipal waste in the US is transported across state lines, a la NYC.

I could offer you numerous tips to help curb your trips to the um, curb -- being more diligent about recycling, composting your kitchen scraps, donating used items via Freecycle, buying things in bulk to cut down on packaging waste, and so on. But your question made me think about the bigger picture: How can we tame our trash on a national level?

There will always be concerned citizens like yourself who are motivated to whittle down their waste bins for the benefit of the planet, but it's not so easy to inspire everyone else. Education about recycling and composting doesn't seem to be very effective, no matter how flashy the PSA: In Massachusetts, for instance, the residential recycling rate is virtually the same as it was over a decade ago: 28 percent.

But one solution to roll back our rubbish is proving promising, and that's because it utilizes a universally motivating force (for Americans, anyway): money.

Under most residential waste programs, everyone pays the same amount for sanitation service, regardless of how much they throw away. There's no incentive for conservation: I can recycle and compost to my heart's content, but I still get charged $50.36 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power every two months, the same as my neighbor who I swear owns stock in Hefty.

But a relatively new approach called Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT), or trash metering, charges households a rate based on how much trash they throw away. It just makes sense: We're charged for other utilities like electricity and water based on usage, so why should we be given a free license to pollute?

The program is having a huge environmental -- and economic -- impact in the cities and towns that have implemented it. A spokesperson for WasteZero, a South Carolina company that runs trash metering programs for some 300 US cities, tells me that its program reduces trash levels by an average of 43 percent. In some areas, the results are even more profound: Concord, NH, saw its solid waste volume decrease nearly 50 percent and recycling increase 75 percent within three months of implementing PAYT -- to the tune of a $528,000 savings per year in reduced disposal costs for the city.

The only downside is that for now, trash metering has proven difficult to execute for high-rise dwellers; most programs can only be implemented in buildings of six residential units or less.

If you're not in the above category and you live in a community without a PAYT program, why not lobby your local government to start one? It may help reduce your trash bill in the long term, and will inspire you to come up with creative ways to put your garbage pail on a diet (more than scary landfill statistics ever will).

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