Trash talk in Fall River & New Bedford

Our Gateway City neighbors to the east and west are shaking things up when it comes to trash collection, resulting in significant changes for Fall River and New Bedford residents this summer. Unless you’re a fan of The Sopranos, it’s hard to find excitement in the topic of solid waste management. Nevertheless, these changes shed light on how these two cities are approaching the kinds of fiscal and public management challenges that are threatening the viability of municipalities nationwide. Below is a primer on each city’s plan and the potential implications thereof.


 

Fall River

What’s happening? Earlier this year, Fall River accepted six proposals from solid waste management contractors to provide the city with trash and recycling services. One of the proposals came from the City of Fall River, which currently provides these services through its Sanitation Division (which strangely offers trolley services for hire as well).

At the end of May 2014, Mayor Will Flanagan announced that his administration had selected Waste Zero as the city’s new vendor, which proposed a unit-based pricing system commonly known as pay-as-you-throw (PAYT). If the City Council approves the proposed budget for FY15, PAYT will begin on August 1.

What’s the reason for this change? The change was precipitated by the impending closure of Fall River’s landfill. According to Herald News reports, Mayor Flanagan, who was once “adamantly opposed” to PAYT, now sees this system as a means for generating $3.5 million that will in turn fund 22 firefighter positions slated for elimination (click here to learn more about that).

What does this mean for residents? Starting on August 1, city residents will be required to place their household trash in special bags that must be purchased at city retailers (the most expensive bag will hold 30 gallons at a cost of $2). It is expected that recycling, which generates revenue for the city, will increase as a result.

What are the benefits of this change?As Mayor Flanagan noted in this article, this shift represents thinking about trash and recycling as a utility for which the customer pays according to use. The MA Department of Environmental Protection states on this PAYT fact sheet that this shift makes PAYT more equitable when compared to a system in which households generating little trash subsidize those disposing of greater quantities. Another benefit is that recycling rates are likely to increase significantly while reducing overall solid waste generated, the latter of which is estimated to save $900,000 per year on landfill costs.

What are the potential challenges with PAYT in Fall River? Enough communities, including cities like Worcester, have implemented PAYT successfully and in a way that dispels the idea that it will lead to problems like illegal dumping. Some cities are concerned that PAYT disproportionately impacts low-income residents, but as this Rappaport Briefing argues, there are options like discounted bags that could be implemented to alleviate any burden.

While PAYT looks like a no-brainer for Fall River, there may be some issues surrounding the management of the transition itself. First, will city employees who currently haul trash and recycling be carrying out the operations of PAYT? Just one month ago, Mayor Flanagan told these employees that privatization was unlikely, but the most recent reports suggest that the program will be managed by Waste Zero. Second, what happens to the significant investment Fall River made to automate its trash and recycling collection? This investment included the purchase of 16 new trucks and compatible carts, all of which cost $7 million.

Finally, PAYT can be perceived as an end-run tax. This is particularly acute in Fall River, where this change was announced just weeks ago and as a way to stave off firefighter cuts. Even MassDEP, which would be expected to remain agnostic on this front, recommends that municipalities make PAYT “revenue neutral, by reducing property taxes or flat fees by the amount that unit-based fees are expected to generate.”


 

New Bedford

What’s happening? Beginning later this month, city residents will scrap (well, hopefully recycle) their personal garbage bins and begin using bins provided by the city that will accommodate a new, automated system of trash and recycling pickup. There’s nothing revolutionary about this–Fall River made the change in 2009, and other SouthCoast municipalities (many of which also contract with ABC Disposal, which is New Bedford’s waste management vendor) are following suit.

What’s the reason for this change? The reasons cited for moving toward automation include cost savings (reportedly $100,000 per year) resulting from increased recycling and reduced landfill costs. However, this article suggests that this estimate is based on New Bedford’s recycling rate doubling, which may or may not transpire. Other anticipated benefits include a reduced amount of trash spilling out of bins and onto city streets, the improved ease of recycling (separating paper and cardboard will no longer be required), and possibly improved measurement and tracking of recycling rates. The last item is not verified, but because bins are equipped with barcodes, this seems like a distinct possibility.

What does this mean for residents? City residents will now put all recyclables into one bin, without needing to sort them, and all trash into another. Single-family homes will have a 65-gallon bin for each, while two-family homes will receive bins that can hold 95 gallons. Bins have the capacity to be picked up from the curb with automated arms connected to the truck, reducing staffing on the trucks and the physical toll on those workers.

What are the benefits of this change? As noted, potential benefits include cost savings of approximately $100,000 per year (depending on resident behavior) and tidier streets.

What are the potential challenges with New Bedford’s new system? First, it seems like the city is paying quite a bit more for waste disposal with the new system (and new contract with ABC Disposal). In FY14, the city spent $4,155,576; in FY15, it is projected to spend $4,560,637. The increase of over $400,000 may reflect one-time costs, but this isn’t entirely clear. Second, the size of the bins (quite large, and the same for trash and recycling) may not actually encourage more recycling, because there is plenty of room for trash–65 gallons, which would cost a Fall River resident over $4 to dispose of. And was the requirement to sort really holding many people back from recycling in the first place? It will be interesting to see that answered, and if that answer is yes, perhaps those projected savings will be realized.

Finally, compared to other cities, New Bedford is a bit behind the times when it comes to single-stream recycling and automated pickup. As more municipalities shift to PAYT, this change may make it harder for New Bedford to do so if the need to cut costs becomes more acute. After all, while bins like these can be used for PAYT, this would require the implementation of a billing system to charge for the trash collected. Other communities have also found that bins in the 60+ gallon range are too large for PAYT.

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