County Environmental Sustainability Board Researches Tiered Trash Rate

Sue Barnes.jpgSue Barnes speaks to Voices of Los Alamos Monday evening on the Save-As-You-Throw tiered rate for trash disposal. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


The Los Alamos County Environmental Sustainability Board is looking at ways to restructure trash rates to make them more equitable, to reduce waste and to cover costs.

Board member Sue Barns gave an overview Monday to the Voices of the Los Alamos group on the idea of switching to a tiered rate system also known as “Save-As-You-Throw”. She said with the current system you pay the same no matter how much trash you put out. Under a tiered rate structure the more you put out the more you pay.

“People who put out less trash are actually subsidizing people who put out more and this really takes this to a place where we’re charging more based on cost to serve as opposed to the tax approach that we have at the moment where everybody pays the same. So basically, we’re turning it into a service where rates are paid like you pay for electricity gas or food. It gives residents more control over their budgets because people can decide how much trash they want to generate,” she said. “This is not a new thing, It’s well documented that there are now more than 7,000 communities in the country that have been doing this for more than a quarter of a century. It’s been shown to reduce trash, increase recycling and a whole host of benefits come along with that including saving money, landfill space, green sources and greenhouse gases.”

Barns said the tiered rate system tends to be wildly preferred by citizens in communities where it has already been replaced. The ESB polled Los Alamos residents a few years ago to see what they would like to see in terms of methods to increase recycling in the community and that was the third most favorite option, she said.

Barns said costs for waste disposal continue to increase and that historically the increases have been paid for with across the board rate increases. Switching to the SAYT system reduces the amount of trash sent to the landfill which reduces environmental impacts and solid waste disposal costs.  Barns said SAYT significantly increases recycling, composting and waste avoidance which preserves resources and reduces climate impacts. Overall, she said, it also helps to raise awareness of environmental and sustainability issues.

Several systems are now in use in other places, the most widespread being the tiered rate based on cart size. Another approach is specially colored and specially marked bags that would be purchased for placement in the roll carts. Barns said in each case there would probably be a base fee that would still appear on the utility bill that would cover the services that have to be provided in general to make sure we there is a stable income stream.

Barns said the Environmental Protection Agency has conducted studies that show the tiered rate system is the most effective way to decrease trash and increase recycling. Nationally communities see recycling participation go up by about 50 percent. The amount going to the landfill goes down by anywhere from 15 to 50 percent.

“If you look at the different ways we can go about lowering our collective County carbon footprint, this is probably the quickest cheapest and easiest way to do,” Barns said.

One of the things that’s really impressive with this approach is that it not only reduces waste and increases recycling but it also reduces the amount of stuff that people get rid of overall.

“It actually influences how people buy things which is pretty important for the environment,” she said. “People like it. Citizen satisfaction surveys show respondents like it a whole lot and once it’s implemented they think it’s a fair way to go – they don’t find it difficult to do.”

One of the concerns people have about changing to SAYT is that change is hard and scary, Barns said. She also mentioned that there are some value-based objections that residents may have.

“The fact that 80 percent of people prefer a tiered rate system and don’t want to change back after they’ve gone to it suggests that these are manageable and tolerable issues for the majority of participants,” she said. She also mentioned that the system is difficult to implement in multi-family units.

“No U.S. community has really figured out how to make this work well in apartments for instance. Currently apartments are on the commercial side of the ledger paying a tiered rate based on dumpster service,” Barns said.

“Rate setting can be tricky so we need to figure out rates that are not too high, not too low and find a sweet spot where we’re charging fairly and covering our costs while inspiring waste reduction and increased recycling,”  she said. “We’re just getting started on this process. We really want to engage residents and find out if people are interested in changing to this. We’re doing  a great deal of research.”

The SAYT Research Committee meets at 9 a.m. every other Friday at the EcoStation. For more information, email