So, Calgary: what if every time you threw out your garbage, you had to pay a fee?

It's an approach that would fundamentally change the way Calgarians think about their trash. And while it would come with some up-front costs, it could save us a lot of money in the long run.

New report says 'pay as you throw' system would be fairer, more efficient and save money in long run

A City of Calgary garbage truck picks up a black bin from the curbside. (CBC)

Imagine if each time you put out your garbage, you got billed.

But, conversely, if you skipped a garbage day — you didn't get billed.

It's an idea that could be coming to a back alley near you, as a way to incentivize waste reduction and make the whole system more efficient.

Lindsay Tedds is in favour of the idea. The University of Calgary economist figures the way we pay for garbage now is not only inefficient — it's unfair.

Tedds says the current flat monthly fee for black-bin collection creates no incentive for people to reduce their waste. Even worse, she says it financially favours those who load up the landfill with more than their fair share of trash.

"Why should I subsidize you, if you're throwing out four times as much garbage as I am?" she says.

Tedds also sits on Canada's Ecofiscal Commission, a non-partisan research group that released a new report Tuesday calling for a different approach to waste collection. It's an approach Tedds says would fundamentally change the way Calgarians think about their trash. And while it would come with some up-front costs, it could save us a lot of money in the long run.

It's called "pay as you throw."

You might have heard the phrase before; it's something the City of Calgary has been considering. City staff came forward with a proposal earlier this year that would involve pay-as-you-throw principles, but city council sent them back to the drawing board to revise the plan.

The devil, it seems, will be in the details.

Flat versus per-use fee

What Ecofiscal is proposing is pretty simple: We'd all be charged a new fee each time we have garbage that needs to be picked up. The thing is, if you don't put out the bin for collection, you don't get charged the fee.

"So that incentivizes people to not put their bins out when they're not full and, as a result, the city spends less having to collect that garbage," Tedds says.

This could be coupled with property tax reductions, she says, so that the full cost of garbage collection is covered by the user fees.

Currently, the monthly fees for black-bin collection in Calgary only cover part of the cost of the service. The rest is supported by property taxes.

A woman stands in front of a sign.
Lindsay Tedds is an economics professor at the University of Calgary and scientific director of fiscal and economic policy at its School of Public Policy. (CBC)

The Ecofiscal recommendation differs from what city staff had proposed back in June. At the time, they were suggesting a system of variable-sized carts, where residents could choose a small, medium or large black bin for their household waste. The bigger bin you choose, the more you pay each month in a flat fee.

This was to be coupled with a "tag-a-bag" system for excess garbage. So, if you occasionally needed to throw out more than your bin would hold, you could buy special stickers to affix to garbage bags that you could then leave next to the bin for manual pickup.

Several council members raised concerns with this plan, including the lack of incentive it would create to reduce landfill waste. They didn't kill the idea altogether, but rather instructed city staff to bring back a revised proposal in early 2019.

"I don't want to throw the baby out with the black bin here," Mayor Naheed Nenshi said at the time.

Ecofiscal says the per-pickup fee could work in Calgary whether the city sticks with a single size for black bins or moves to variable-sized bins. It's already working in other places.

"This is the same type of program used in Beaconsfield, Que., where households pay an additional 40 cents per pickup for small bins and $1.20 for larger bins," their report reads.

But how, exactly, would the city keep track of which homes put out a bin on a given week, and which don't?

Technology offers one solution.

How bins are tracked

Get this.

Already embedded in Calgary's black bins are small radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be quickly scanned to uniquely identify each bin.

The city currently uses the RFID tags to track the condition of bins and which ones require maintenance.

In Beaconsfield — a smaller municipality on the island of Montreal with a population of about 20,000 — the RFID tags are used to track bins for the purposes of its pay-as-you-throw system.

And the City of Calgary is investigating whether its existing RFID tags could be used in the same way.

Beaconsfield was one of the highest producers of garbage on the island of Montreal before it introduced these bins with RFID tags and a pay-as-you-throw system of waste collection. (Karen Messier)

Kate Trajan, leader of strategic planning with waste and recycling services, offers a note of caution here, however.

She says the Beaconsfield model may not be exactly applicable to Calgary and the city is looking at what has been feasible in other, larger municipalities across North America.

"Every city that has introduced a model — whether it's using RFID technology or different-sized carts — they've learned some lessons," she says.

"It's going to be a bit unique for every city."

Trajan says city staff are looking at a range of possible options for a pay-as-you-throw system in Calgary but, regardless of the specific methods, the principle remains the same.

"Broadly speaking, a pay-as-you-throw approach just means that if you put out more garbage you pay more, and if you put out less garbage you pay less," she says.

"So we're really just looking at what approach is going to make the most sense for Calgary, given the infrastructure that we have, and what will make it an affordable and easy program for Calgarians to use."

Whatever approach they recommend, there's bound to be some pushback.

The politics of pay as you throw

The whole point of pay as you throw is to make the cost of waste collection more apparent.

"The idea here is to get consumers to see the true costs of the waste they're producing," says Dale Beugin, executive director of the Ecofiscal Commission. "When you're producing more waste, that's adding to the costs of waste-management processes run by cities."

But, he says, this can also present a political problem: Making the cost more noticeable can make it seem like a new cost, and voters are justifiably wary of what might seem like a cash grab.

That's why he thinks it's important for municipal politicians to draw a direct connection between user fees and property taxes.

"As you increase these waste fees, you're decreasing property taxes," he says.

Political reaction in Calgary, however, has already been mixed.

Ward 2 Coun. Joe Magliocca expressed doubts about pay-as-you-throw systems in general, saying he could "guarantee" that people in his community would simply throw their garbage into their neighbours' bins to avoid paying the fees.

Coun. Joe Magliocca, left, and Coun. Peter Demong had differing perspectives on how Calgarians would react to a pay-as-you-throw garbage system. (CBC)

"That's what they would do," Magliocca said during a committee meeting in June. "They're not going to pay for it. And it's not going to happen just in my neighbourhood, it's going to happen, probably, all over Calgary."

Ward 14 Coun. Peter Demong disagreed.

"I've been contacted from a number of constituents because they're really quite interested in this and they think it's a fantastic idea and, unlike Ward 2, they actually want to go forward with a new system," he said.

Some councillors raised concerns, too, about a pay-as-you-throw system disproportionately affecting low-income households but city staff have suggested the city's fair-entry program — which sees fees for city services offered on a sliding scale — could be used to reduce the burden.

Regardless of popular opinion, there is one thing about pay-as-you-throw that has municipal politicians across the country intrigued: the potential for long-term cost savings.

Avoiding landfill costs

Landfills are expensive enough to operate, but the really big cost comes when a city fills one up and needs to build another. And that, Tedds says, is one of the biggest financial arguments in favour of a system that gives users an incentive to minimize their waste.

"The more we can extend the life of a landfill and put off building a new one, which in the City of Calgary would cost about $1.5 billion, the more costs we don't incur in the future," she says.

This was a big part of the motivation when the city introduced green bins for organic waste and built a massive, new composting facility. Tedds wonders, however, if the city has fully communicated that to citizens.

"It's a really tricky thing to communicate," she says, "because we're not talking about reducing costs, we're talking about avoiding a cost."

And pay-as-you-throw systems can make a significant difference on that front, according to the Ecofiscal report, by giving people a financial incentive to recycle and compost more than they otherwise would.

"Research shows that PAYT programs can decrease household waste disposal by 10 per cent to 50 per cent, depending on local context and design details," it reads.

Despite the political hurdles, Beugin believes more and more municipalities will move to pay-as-you-throw systems in the near future.

"I'm optimistic that politicians aren't stuck only in the short term … and that they're looking out for the economic welfare of their citizens in the long term, as well," he says.

"Better to pay a little bit more in the short term than a lot more in the long term."

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at:

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Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.