It's time to talk trash

April 13, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

Trash is not normally a topic for community discussion. Most people just want it taken away.

However, a group of disabled veterans recently petitioned the Washington County Commissioners for a discount on the annual residential trash permit fee. This petition has prompted me to explore the trash permit — or self-service — system, and to invite a broader community discussion about trash and the way our county deals with it.

Like the disabled veterans, everyone wants to save money on trash removal. In my opinion, the current residential trash permit system needs to be redesigned to not only give everyone the opportunity to save money, but also to achieve other community goals.

Trash finds its way to the landfill generally in three ways — municipal trash pick-up, private haulers and self-service. Municipalities in the county provide trash pick-up as part of service to residents. Sharpsburg and Clear Spring provide trash pick-up with no extra fee, while other towns levy a service fee ranging from $10 per quarter to $36 per quarter based upon varying schedules, services offered, eligible trash and whether recycling is offered.

Homeowners outside the municipalities are responsible for their own trash disposal. Most contract with one of 60 commercial trash haulers licensed by Washington County.  These haulers generally take the trash to Forty West Landfill.

The county recognizes that many homeowners want to take care of their own trash disposal. To accommodate this, each household can purchase an annual residential trash permit that allows them to take their trash to the landfill. It is very popular, with more than 7,660 residential permits issued.

Its popularity might be attributed to the fact it is currently the least expensive way for households to dispose of trash. It might be least expensive for the permit holder, but I think there are two reasons why it is not best for the community, and ultimately not best for the homeowner.

First, the revenue generated by the sale of residential permits totals about $850,000. But it costs more than $1.1 million to operate this self-service system. Taxpayers subsidize this system in the amount of nearly $250,000. To eliminate this subsidy would take a rate increase of about $40 per year.  

The second reason is that this self-service residential permit system is abused. Some households share the permit with their extended families or neighbors. Some people purchase a residential permit rather than purchase a commercial trash-hauling license. It is estimated that as much as 10 percent of the residential permit holders abuse the system. This abuse reduces permit fees revenue and does nothing to encourage appropriate use of the landfill.

But there is an alternative that would likely generate more revenue, reduce abuse and give every self-service household the opportunity to save even more on trash disposal, and to achieve other community goals. The system is referred to as Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT). It is based on the simple premise that the fee paid to put trash in the landfill should be tied directly to the amount that goes in.  

One possible approach is to sell prepaid, approved trash bags at a price that covers the cost of operating the self-service system. PAYT would generate more revenue, because the system would “capture” revenue that is missed. Under the existing permit system, “extra tonnage” that is taken to the landfill by abusers is not charged. Under a PAYT system, all trash would generate revenue for the landfill.    

With PAYT bags, there are two highly desirable incentives, and here is where the savings for each household can be realized. The first incentive is to fill each trash bag. Prudent consumers aren't going to pay for a full bag and only fill it half way. The second incentive is to reduce the amount of trash that actually goes to the landfill. The most obvious way to reduce the amount of trash is to recycle. As much as 50 percent of household trash is recyclable. Consider the savings to each household if we reduce the amount of trash thrown into the landfill by 50 percent.  

Adopting PAYT as a new approach to our county's self-service system promises benefits over the current residential permit system. First, each homeowner would have the opportunity to take care of his own trash disposal and the freedom to decide the extent to which he wants to recycle.  Second, taxpayers would know that their tax dollars are no longer being used to subsidize illegal conduct or to encourage behavior that is not in the community's best interest. Finally, by capturing more revenue, funds used to subsidize the existing system could be returned to the county's general fund for other needed purposes.

To me, a PAYT self-service system seems a win-win situation for all.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident and development coordinator at Washington County Free Library. His email address is

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