Eyeing a new recycling incentive program, Summit County officials are uncertain about how to provide subsidies to lower-income households

The county is preparing to join Breckenridge and Frisco with a pay-as-you-throw program that would charge residents based on how much waste is generated. But officials are divided on how — and if — payment assistance should be offered to certain households.

Public trash and recycling bins are seen in Breckenridge. Summit County officials are currently hashing out the details of a recycling incentive program for unincorporated residents. The program, known as pay-as-you-throw, has already been passed in the towns of Frisco and Breckenridge.
Eli Pace/Summit Daily News archive

As it looks to increase waste diversion and prolong the life of a countywide landfill, the Summit Board of County Commissioners is eyeing the approval of a volume-based trash pricing system that would make discarding large amounts of trash more expensive for residents. 

Known as pay-as-you-throw, the program charges residents different amounts based on the size of their trash bins — with smaller sizes costing the least — in a bid to incentivize more recycling and less waste. Similar programs have already been adopted in the towns of Breckenridge and Frisco, which have set a goal of having 90% curbside compliance by October. 

Should commissioners approve their own program this year, it would go into effect for single-family homes in unincorporated areas in 2024 before potentially expanding to multifamily units, such as condos and apartments, the following year. 

But while commissioners are supportive of the overall goal, they expressed uncertainty about how, and if, they should subsidize lower-income households. 

“I don’t think there’s going to be enough need,” said Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence, during an April 25 commissioners meeting.

According to a staff memo, data collected from a trash hauler in the county shows that of more than 1,000 households signed up for trash collection services, just 75 have more than one 96-gallon bin (considered to be a larger size). 

Roughly half of those households do not have curbside recycling services, the memo states. But Haulers believe that most of those households should still be able to downsize their bins to 64 gallons, according to the memo.

“The sentiment among haulers is that accounts with more than one (96-gallon) trash toter are mostly” short-term rentals, the memo states. “Haulers do not anticipate a very large number of people who will qualify for assistance.”

Lawrence said a payment assistance program to help families who may not be able to downsize their trash — and therefore would face steeper rates — would likely only help “a handful of people,” based on the data collected so far.

Lawrence also said it would be difficult to know if cost increases for trash services would be just because of pay-as-you-throw or if it would be related to other factors. 

“Folks that are renters oftentimes are paying that for their rent, and their rent may go up regardless,” Lawrence said. “I think trash prices are oftentimes going up regardless just because of the lack of staffing in that world.”

Commissioner Josh Blanchard said he was supportive of offering some form of an assistance program, especially as families continue to bear the brunt of inflation.

“I think having this as a possible stopgap for families or households that meet this requirement, this could be a good buffer for that,” Blanchard said, adding that an assistance program could always be adjusted, or even discontinued, later in the future. 

Commissioner Tamara Pogue also voiced support for some form of assistance program, though she also floated the idea of tying that assistance to educational outreach to residents for how to reduce waste. 

As of March of last year, the county had a 20% diversion rate, which represents the amount of waste that is reduced, reused or recycled rather than thrown in the county landfill. As more of the county adopts recycling incentive programs, officials have said that rate could be bumped to 40% by 2035.

County staff members have proposed offering gift cards for income-qualifying residents to help pay for trash collection fee increases, a recommendation from members of the nonprofit Family & Intercultural Resources Center. Staff also said direct payments could be given to trash haulers instead in order to offset the costs of larger bins. 

And as the commissioners look to eventually expand the program to multifamily housing, payment assistance is likely to be a bigger need, county staff said. 

Ultimately, staff said any details and subsequent decisions on a payment program and how best to administer it will take more time to hammer out. 

“We’re not trying to create more bureaucracy through this,” said Dave Rossi, the county’s policy and communications director. “The outcome that we want is to extend the life of the landfill.”

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