Concord marks five successful years of pay-as-you-throw, but city likely to see mark-up of purple bags next year
The Bashios household completely changed its habits five years ago, when Concord adopted a pay-as-you-throw program.
Robin Bashios used to only recycle cardboard boxes, and the rest went into multiple black bags on the curb. Since the advent of purple city trash bags, she said her family of four fills just one bag of trash per week and recycles the rest in a big bin.
The Bashios’s business tried to make the change, too. But after a year of selling purple bags, the South Street Market discontinued them because Robin and her husband, Jim, found them much more inconvenient to sell than to use.
“If there was some kind of a benefit for the retailers, then we would think about it,” she said.
Five years in, the data on Concord’s pay-as-you-throw program proves its early proponents right. Trash collection has decreased by more than 40 percent, and recycling has increased by more than 60 percent. But the bags don’t make money for either the city or the local businesses that sell them, and their price is likely to increase next year for the first time ever.
“Without question, (the pay-as-you-throw program) is now part of people’s lives,” Ward 7 Councilor Keith Nyhan said. “People are accustomed to it. . . . The reality is, people who live in Concord are used to the program, and it works.”
Concord’s pay-as-you-throw program took effect in summer 2009. Nyhan was the chair of the solid waste advisory committee that recommended that program as a way to save money on climbing fees for trash collection and disposal.
“I occasionally still hear from the person who says, ‘I don’t like the purple trash bags,’ ” Nyhan said. “What I tell people is, no one does. But usually when I explain to people the financial decision points, people seem to understand.”
Falling from ‘trash heaven’
In 1985, Concord joined a regional trash cooperative. The contract was with Wheelabrator Technologies, and the trash went to an incinerator in Penacook that burned the city’s waste for energy. The fees were also impressively low.
General Services Director Chip Chesley called it “trash heaven.”
“Part of the reason Concord enjoyed ‘trash heaven’ and cheap disposal rates is because we were first into the market, and everyone’s electric rates in part were underwriting the cost of trash,” Chesley said.
Then Concord Regional Solid Waste Cooperative and Wheelabrator negotiated a new contract, and the city was descending to trash hell. The contract included an increase in tipping fees that would have cost the general fund $900,000 more in fiscal year 2010. So Nyhan’s committee began to study the alternatives.
Their recommendation was a pay-as-you-throw program that included free weekly recycling. A 30-gallon bag cost $2, and a 15-gallon bag cost $1.
“It was going to be roughly a 3-percent tax increase just to maintain the same services that were going to be delivered related to solid waste,” Nyhan said. “The whole idea of going with a pay-as-you-throw program really allowed the city to place the costs of solid waste collection in (relation) to those services. If you use more trash, you pay more for trash collection.”
Critics believed city trash bags would be a financial burden to many Concord residents. Others predicted the switch would mean more illegal trash dumping. The city council approved the program, however, and it took effect July 1, 2009.
“Once you start paying for something, you become immediately aware of it,” Chesley said. “And you may change your behavior.”
Converts and complaints
In the year before pay-as-you-throw, Concord residents threw away 14,816 tons of trash. Collected every other week, recycling totaled 2,752 tons for that year.
In the first year of purple trash bags, the city’s residents threw away 8,400 tons and trash and recycled 3,456 tons. That’s a 43 percent decrease in trash and a 25 percent increase in recycling.
“As soon as people started paying for the service, they started to recycling more and more, and they threw away less and less,” Chesley said.
That success has stuck over five years. In 2013, Concord collected 8,427 tons of trash and 4,440 tons of recycling from its residents. Even on the first two days ever of the program, more than 91 percent of residents complied with the rules of the purple bags, and Chesley said illegal dumping has not increased in the five years since.
Nyhan joked that his own father was among the Concord residents who cringed at the prospect of buying city trash bags. But now, he is “a convert,” his son said.
“Every Monday, I see his purple bag out,” Nyhan said. Right next to the recycling bin.
While some skeptics like the older Nyhan have been sold on the program, some business owners like Bashios have not been. When a Concord resident buys a package of city trash bags, the vendor doesn’t see a profit. Subtract the debit or credit card fee when the buyer swipes for purple bags, and the South Street Market was actually losing money.
Then when Bashios and her husband noticed they weren’t gaining new customers after about a year of selling the purple bags, they stopped selling them.
“We said, let’s get out of this,” Bashios said. “We’re beating our heads against the wall and not making a thing.”
Other vendors have stuck with the program. In 2009, the Monitor reported 18 local stores would sell the bags; today, that number is 16. At the Concord Food Co-op, customer service manager Josh Bourassa said cashiers will now only accept cash for the bags.
“We see this as a community service,” Bourassa said. “We’re happy to break even on them. We didn’t want to lose any money.”
At Quality Cash Market in East Concord, assistant manager Ed Heath estimated the store loses at least 10 cents per bag bought with a credit or debit card. Heath said he often hears customers complain about the required bags.
“At times, we take the brunt of their aggravation,” Heath said. “We say to them, ‘It’s out of our control. We’re doing this as a convenience to you to have them here.’ ”
But he can always tell when it’s trash day in East Concord.
“Friday morning, they’re flying through the door to buy ’em,” he said.
Last year, Concord parted ways with Wheelabrator and signed a new 10-year contract for trash disposal with Casella Waste Systems. Casella had already been collecting the city’s trash and recycling, and since July 1, its trucks are now delivering waste to its own transfer station in Allenstown instead of the Penacook incinerator.
The reason for the switch was financial. Concord would have been paying Wheelabrator a tipping fee of $64 per ton for all trash; in the first year with Casella, the city is paying $57 for each ton of residential trash and $61 for each ton of commercial trash. Casella is also deploying split-body trucks that can collect both trash and recycling, rather than running separate trucks for each.
“What we’ve done by going out for new contracts, we’ve done about everything we can to contain our expenses,” Chesley said.
Revenue from the purple bags, however, does not cover the department’s costs. In 2013, the city lost an estimated $320,010 on solid waste. This year, that number is projected to be $104,960. The solid waste fund is running out of capital to cover that gap, and Chesley said the price of the purple bags will likely increase for the first time next year.
“The budget hasn’t had a price adjustment to the bags for five years,” Chesley said. “When you think of everything else, everything else has continued to increase.”
The city doesn’t know yet what that increase would be, and Nyhan’s committee will discuss the price this fall.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)