Charging for Trash, Bag by Bag

Here's how to persuade people to recycle or compost: by trashing their wallets.

Ron Zanazzo, trash enforcer (National Journal)

MALDEN, Mass. — Saving the planet can be a messy proposition.

This is indelibly clear to Ron Zanazzo, who spends mornings rifling through garbage bags, looking for envelopes or documents that can identify to whom the trash belongs.

"In the summer, it can be pretty disgusting," he told me matter-of-factly. "In the winter it's not as bad because it's not maggot-infested and all of that."

Zanazzo is a city employee in Malden, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb of 60,000. As part of a drive to be more environmentally friendly, Malden now charges residents for their trash--one of many approaches that cities are trying in order to cut down on trash.

Malden is among about 1,200 cities nationwide that have implemented so-called Pay-as-You-Throw programs, which charge residents for garbage bags. The municipal garbage trucks won't pick up any trash that's not in marked Malden bags, which cost $1 for a 15-gallon bag, $2 for a 33-gallon bag. Since residents have to now pay for every garbage bag they use, the thinking goes, they'll recycle and compost more. The city picks up recycling and yard waste for free.

This has saved the city money, since it costs less to have less trash hauled. Malden's trash tonnage was cut in half between 2006 and 2013, when it implemented the program. Another Massachusetts city, Worcester, saw solid-waste tonnage drop 47 percent in the first year it implemented the program, to 22,810 tons from 43,288 tons.

"Before you had this bag-based program, you were counting on residents to be volunteers in this process," said Mark Dancy, the president of WasteZero, which advises on Pay-as-You-Throw programs for Malden and other cities. "Now they're part of it, because it's in their best interest. No amount of advertising or promotion can get that kind of result."

Malden residents have not, as a whole, loved this idea. Throwing everything into the garbage and waiting for someone to haul it away is easy. Thinking about whether you can recycle yogurt cups, plastic bags and textbooks, then cleaning and folding them appropriately, and then putting them in the correct bins is not. People pushed back.

They lost their fight, but are rebelling in other ways. They buy trash bags from other places and then leave garbage in public trash cans or out in front of other people's houses to avoid fees. They leave recycling in the clear bags marked for recycling, but put trash in those bags, too. They put things on their curb that garbage men can't take, seeming to hope, beyond reason, that the items will magically disappear.

"We have heard quite a few complaints concerning litter in our streets, unkempt trash and illegal dumping during this winter season," the city told its residents on its Facebook page.

That's where Zanazzo comes in. His job is to sleuth through the bags' rubbish, write tickets, and levy fines. I spent a morning with him, following the garbage truck route and looking for suspicious trash and for households that have tried to leave out recycling that can't be recycled. To the untrained eye, Malden's trash collection system seems well-organized. Trash cans are marked with bright stickers that say "trash." Cardboard boxes are folded neatly in bins, clearly meant to be recycled. The blue "Malden" bags give an aura of team spirit to the town, as if everyone is getting ready for homecoming simply by neatly disposing of trash.

But Zanazzo knows better. Humans are slobs.

"Look at this," he says, slowing his truck near a home with recycling bins innocently set out front. Amid the orange-juice cartons and newspapers in the recycling bin: half-full paint cans. Paint cans can't be recycled. He writes a ticket--a polite reminder to the resident on proper trash disposal and recycling techniques. It says:


We pass a bookshelf that has been unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk in front of a house. Not allowed. Zanazzo writes a ticket. We find a collection of black trash bags outside a house that is under construction. Inside are food wrappers, wood chips, and Styrofoam. Definitely not allowed. Zanazzo moves the bags inside the house's picket fence. Then he writes a ticket.

It's amazing how many people leave personal information in the trash, he says. About three-quarters of the unidentified trash bags he finds have something — pizza boxes, junk mail, receipts — with some kind of personal information that allows Zanazzo to find the culprit and write a ticket.

Zanazzo writes these tickets for people who put out household carpeting as trash, or trash that is not in a blue Malden bag, or more than one bulk item per week, or television monitor or tires or wood or toilets. (By state law, residents are on their own for toilet disposal.) It's up to residents to know the rules, and to know what can and can't be recycled.

Other efforts have failed: Malden tried distributing bins for compost. This led to rat problems, and also tornados of food and scraps in high-wind situations. Malden no longer distributes compost bins.

Zanazzo once was not a recycler. When he moved into his first house in Malden, it was a fixer-upper. He threw away half of the house. It was probably recyclable. He didn't know.

Now, he's the biggest recycler in his neighborhood. He's got bins and bins of recycling. He has compost bins under his kitchen sink and recycling cans on his porch.

"It's a pain in the neck, really," he said. "But it's the right thing to do."