GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 30, 2012

Bags cut waste, save city $1M

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — In the three-plus years since Gloucester switched from trash stickers to “pay as you throw,” and introduced purple bags for throwing, the city has seen at least a 28 percent decrease in collected waste — 6,000 tons in the aggregate — and nearly $1 million in savings, according to Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

The mayor made her case study presentation in conjunction with WasteZero — the North Carolina-based company that manufactures the bags, known colloquially around town as “Barney bags,” a reference to the television dinosaur of the same color — at the National League of Cities convention in Boston on Thursday.

The convention attracted representatives of 3,000 cities. About 50 were in attendance for Kirk’s presentation in one of the 10 “solution theaters” at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center. The four-day convention ends today.

Kirk revisited the presentation in an interview Friday. The “pay as you throw” program in 2009 during her first term. Until then, trash was financed by the sale of stickers, which encouraged gaming the system in various ways, as well as eyesores and organic trash exposed by seagulls and careless residents.

Kirk said the decision to require residents to acquire trash bags themselves, at a cost of $2 each and sold in packages of five, meant that residents no longer could cut stickers in two or pile bags with a stickered bag on top. At the same time, the city began collecting recyclables weekly rather than bi-weekly and switched contractors from Waste Management to Hiltz, a city-based collector.

The switch from stickers to Barney bags, a nickname Kirk attributed to then recycling coordinator Kathy Middleton, engendered residents to make a greater effort at economizing through the separation of recyclables from trash.

“You’re not going to get customers excited about the change with environmental arguments,” said Kirk. “The magic happens when you show them savings in line items allowing you to protect other city services. It’s the financial argument that makes it happen.”

The recycling coordinator now is Rose Lopiccolo, who is called on to advise residents of the rules which often involves detective work — as when the recycling bins are left out days after the trucks have moved through or when bags appear before 7 a.m. on pickup day in front of houses where the offending party is not self-evident based on location.

Kirk said the city has an ordinance that bars putting the bags out before 7 a.m. on trash collection day, which rotates through from Ward One through Ward Five through the week, with holidays pushing two days into one.

The economic benefit of the “pay as you throw” approach was immediate and dramatic for Gloucester, Kirk said. Her PowerPoint presentation showed that tonnage of trash for which the city paid a tipping fee to Waste Management was over 9,000 tons each year before the switch. In 2009, the transition year, tonnage dropped to about 7,500 tons and then declined to less than 7,000 tons in 2010 through the present.

In fiscal 2009, the last year of the Waste Management contract, the collection and disposal expense to the city was $1,585,884, according to a memo from Lopiccolo to Kirk, which the mayor made available to the Times.

In fiscal 2010, the first year of the Hiltz contract, the cost dropped $341,842 to $1,244,042 — a decrease of 27.4 percent. In the second year of the Barney bag system, the cost was $1,260.175, a slight increase over the previous year but still a dramatic drop from the old system. And then in fiscal 2012 (which ended June 30), the charge edged up slightly again, but again was well below the cost of trash in the sticker system.

Over the three full years of “pay as you throw” trash collection, the city has saved $933,221 compared to the $1,585,844 paid for trash collection when stickers were the currency.

Kirk said one big improvement and a factor in the reduced cost is the fairness of the new system and the ease in decision-making allowed the collectors. “The stickers required judgment calls, and people were aware of the unfairness as some residents piled bags into a pyramid with a stickered bag on top, forcing the collectors to decide how many to take. Each bag required a sticker but linking bags became something of an artform. “The haulers couldn’t tell very easily,” the mayor said.

“Pay as you throw” is simple, Kirk said. “Either the trash is in a purple bag (with the city seal) or it isn’t.”

There was also an increase of about 5 percent in revenue from the purchases of the bags versus stickers. The other benefit was a doubling in the volume of recycled material after the city went from bi-weekly to weekly recycling pickup.

Kirk credited the late former Mayor William Rafter, whose work was in waste and trash collecting, for putting the city at the regional forefront in the burgeoning field.

Joe Landolfi, a spokesman for WasteZero, credited Kirk with courage for going so quickly and full force into “pay as you throw.”

WasteZero is a relatively small privately-owned company which manufactures in South Carolina and has offices in Raleigh, N.C. It makes bags for 50 cities and towns in Massachusetts and about 800 nationally, Landolfi said.

Revenues are “north of $10 million a year,” he said.

“WasteZero has been a tremendous partner for the city,” Kirk said.

Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.