Column: Hey, buddy, let’s talk trash bin math

Before the end of the year, Bloomington residents could be looking at an increased price for their trash pickup by the city’s sanitation division.

City of Bloomington trash cart. Looking north on Washington Street (Oct. 17, 222)

The idea is not just to cover the increased costs for the service. The eventual goal could be to eliminate any general fund support for trash and recycling collection, by making the service pay for itself with fees.

Curbside trash and recycling pickup is a city service that’s now provided just to residences with four or fewer dwelling units, which includes single-family houses.

There is enough money in the recently adopted 2023 budget to continue the general fund support of curbside trash and recycling pickup.

But Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s administration, and at least some councilmembers, want to reduce that support eventually to zero. That’s why sometime before the end of the year, the city council will likely be asked to approve a trash cart rate increase.

To cue up the conversation about trash cart rates, it is important to understand the current monthly rate structure for the three sizes of carts.

At the city council’s Oct. 12 meeting, when the 2023 budget was adopted on a unanimous vote, councilmember Steve Volan spoke about the current rates for trash carts. He stated: “[T]he price per gallon is lower, the smaller a bin a household opts for—in other words, it’s a progressive rate that forces people to think about how much waste they generate…”

Spoiler alert: Bloomington’s current rate per gallon for trash carts is not progressive in that way.

It turns out that if you look at the basic arithmetic for the three cart sizes, the cart with the lowest rate per gallon is the mid-sized cart.

Residents who opt for the smallest size cart (35 gallons) pay 18.6 cents a gallon of trash, which is a half cent more per gallon than the 18.1 cents per gallon that residents pay for a mid-sized cart (64 gallons). Residents who opt for the biggest size cart (96 gallons) pay 1.2 cents more per gallon than residents who opt for the mid-sized cart.

Here’s the breakdown for current trash cart prices as well as one possible rate increase floated by public works director Adam Wason during a departmental budget presentation this fall. Calculations are by the B Square.

Table: Bloomington trash cart rates

Cart size (gallons) Current monthly charge Current price per gallon (ppg) Current ppg deviation from mid-size Future increase? Future ppg? Future ppg deviation from mid-size % increase
35 $6.51 $0.186  + $0.005 $9.75 $0.279 – $0.007 49.77%
64 $11.61 $0.181 $0.000 $18.25 $0.285 $0.000 57.19%
96 $18.52 $0.193 + $0.012 $31.50 $0.328 + $0.043 70.09%

Based on that possible first-year increase, the administration is looking to make each element of the price-per-gallon structure actually progressive. That is, under the potential future increase floated by Wason, the smallest cart size would have the lowest cost per gallon. The biggest cart size would have the biggest cost per gallon.

The potential new rate structure would amplify the progressive character of the part of the scale that is already progressive. That is, based on that potential first-year increase, residents who opt for the biggest size cart would pay 15 percent more per gallon than the mid-sized cart, instead of just 6 percent more per gallon, which is the differential they pay now.

I am skeptical that tinkering with trash cart rates, to make the pricing more or less progressive, will cause anyone to think about how much waste they generate. And if they do, I am skeptical that after thinking about the amount of waste they generate, they will take action to reduce their waste.

I think most folks will just look at the cost for each cart size and ask: What is the cheapest size that meets my waste disposal needs? And perhaps: Does this pricing make sense to me? Or even: Is this fair? But I am wrong about many things and I could be wrong about that, too.

As we think about trash cart pricing, it’s worth remembering that it’s not possible to opt out of any trash service at all. Public works director Adam Wason confirmed for me that if you live in a building with four units or fewer, then you will be billed for at least the smallest cart size.

Another consideration is that it’s not an option for a city resident to hire a private waste hauler—it’s prohibited under city code for  an “unauthorized commercial enterprise” to serve a Bloomington residential customer who is served by Bloomington’s sanitation services.

I hope some consideration might be given to amending the policy that requires every household to pay for a trash cart of some size or other—by allowing two households to declare themselves “trash bin buddies.”

That is, I think it should be possible for two households to share one trash bin, with the cost split between the two households. From the city’s perspective, tipping one full bin instead of two half-full bins should work out to be way more efficient.

I am not exactly wed to this idea of trash bin buddies. It might inject into neighborhoods the same awkward dynamics of inviting someone to a middle school dance: “Hey, Fred, would you like to be my trash bin buddy?” “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re already trash bin buddies with Barney, sorry!”

Or worse: “Isn’t that your trash bin buddy over there?” “Well, now he’s our ex bin buddy…it’s a long story.”

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived for several years, the city adopted an automated trash pickup system almost a decade and a half ago. And even then, I thought that sharing trash bins was a nice idea. So I recorded this song. (Ann Arbor’s trash bins are blue.)

Blue Bin Buddy


Note: Ann Arbor has never adopted a Blue Bin Buddy program for trash collection.

6 thoughts on “Column: Hey, buddy, let’s talk trash bin math

  1. How about leaf collections? Is the city making any effort to help residents identify private providers for 2023 when the city won’t provide the vacuum service any more?

    1. Doubt you’re going to find a private company to do leaf vacuuming. It’s not cost-effective (and is an environmentally bad practice from the perspective of both fuel use and clogging the City’s flood-prone storm drains).

  2. I had heard that some members of the common council were quite disappointed to see the proposed trash fee increases after having passed a local income tax increase. They inquired and were told by the deputy mayor that the fee increase would be taken off the table. And yet we are still discussing this, so I’m beginning to wonder what is going on…

  3. Let’s stop beating around the trash bins here. I agree, these minor tweaks to pricing aren’t likely to curb environmentally negative behaviors. When the trash carts were adopted, it was said that the City would work toward a conservation rate — that is, a pay per pickup rate, where the trash fee is based on the frequency that the trash cart is picked up. The technology to track use (each bin is numbered) is already there, and in use. Let’s get a fee rate in place that reflects actual usage.

    This, too, isn’t likely to change big-wasters’ trash habits. But it would move the financial cost, which is considerably more than either the current or proposed fee, to the users responsible for that cost. And it would reward those who already “do the right thing” and incentivize some others.

    Moving the cost out of the general fund (thereby, away from taxpayers who don’t even have the option to use City trash pickup) is a minimal good start toward equitizing the costs, nonetheless.

    1. I agree that the current set up does not reward those of us who strive to be low-wasters. Our family aims for as close to zero waste as possible by using reusable containers and recycling or composting most of our waste. We have about the equivalent of 2 or 3 newspaper bags of trash a week. We never have enough trash to even fill one small kitchen bag. Yet we pay the same as our neighbors whose trashcan is overflowing each week. I also wish composting were discussed as an option, as well, or perhaps giving us a discount on our trash costs for the $8/week we pay to have our compost picked up.

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