Trash Math Problem

Weekly Limit Of Dixon's 'One Plus One' Plan Doesn't Add Up For Larger Households

April 15, 2009|By Yakov Shafranovich

Mayor Sheila Dixon's proposed "One Plus One" sanitation plan would limit garbage pickup to a total of 64 gallons once per week, while allowing for unlimited recycling. On the surface it may seem like a good plan; after all, who would oppose increasing recycling and sending less waste to landfills? However, once we look at the math behind the plan, it no longer makes sense.

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an average person in this country produces 4.6 pounds of garbage daily, or a total of 32 pounds per week. This is roughly the amount of garbage that would fit in a 40-gallon container. According to the Census Bureau's 2005-2007 American Community Survey, an average household in the city has 2.63 people, for a total of 84 pounds of weekly trash. This would fit snugly in about 105 gallons, 40 gallons more than what the proposed plan allows. Even with recycling, which according to the EPA average diverts about 25 percent of trash nationwide, this still leaves us with 79 gallons - or 15 gallons more than what's allowed.

It gets even worse if there is an extra child or family member living at home. Three-member households would generate about 97 pounds of garbage weekly, requiring 120 gallons. With four members, the amount of garbage jumps to 129 pounds weekly and fits exactly in the 160-gallon limit currently allowed by law. Under the proposed law, 50 to 100 gallons of extra garbage produced each week by such a household would have no place to go.

Most city households have fewer than three members, but what are the people living in larger households supposed to do? Moreover, 16 percent of the city's households have four or more members; more than 285,000 people representing 45 percent of the city's population reside in such households. This would mean that close to a majority of city residents would now have to figure out what to do with a lot of extra garbage. And you can probably figure out where it will end up: other people's garbage cans, public streets and lots, or even worse - our parks, playgrounds and schools.

Strangely enough, while provisions have been made in the proposed bill that allow for written exceptions to the 64-gallon limit, these apply only to multifamily housing. Single-family houses - ones that would be hit the hardest - are not allowed to ask for exemptions under the proposed law. In addition, the law does not spell out any details about the exemption process itself.

A good alternative to the mayor's plan would be what the EPA calls "multitiered pricing," which allows exemptions for larger single-family households that generate more trash - but requires them to pay a fee for additional containers. This would simultaneously generate revenue for the city and ensure fairness for large families while providing an incentive for such households to recycle more and throw away less.

While the mayor and her supporters argue that unlimited recycling would pick up the slack, that seems like wishful thinking. As noted above, recycling rates nationwide are only 25 percent of garbage output. Also, while the unlimited recycling pickup has been emphasized, the city is only budgeting for a specific number of workers and amount of equipment for recycling. If the recycling demand does pick up, who will handle it?

We should keep in mind that issues with garbage and recycling are not new. Thousands of cities nationwide have programs in place to deal with this from various angles. In addition, the EPA runs a program called "Pay as You Throw" that provides guidance to local governments regarding waste management as well as ways to charge residents fairly. According to the EPA, in 2006 there were 49 localities in Maryland using "Pay as You Throw."

Why should Baltimore residents be guinea pigs in a new experiment when there are so many existing programs to learn from? The proposed plan just does not add up - and this summer, as the smell of fresh garbage wafts through our streets, we are likely to find that out.

Yakov Shafranovich is the principal of a computer consulting company based in Baltimore. His e-mail is balt@shaftek.org.

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