In an effort to save from $85 million to $100 million a year, Philadelphia might require residents to pay a dollar or two for each bag of household trash picked up every week.
The proposal has generated about as much enthusiasm as an invitation to sit down for a dinner of ground glass.
"The idea is terrible!" said Lulu Durkson, an elderly woman who lives with a friend in North Philadelphia. "They take enough taxes. . . . Why should I have to pay for them to take away my trash?"
Durkson lives down the street from an object lesson in the city's trash-collection problems - a rowhouse where eight bags of garbage were stacked up yesterday against a porch - three of them torn open, spilling out a potato chip bag and candy wrappers and a half-dozen empty bottles of Hurricane malt liquor.
Her indignation was to be expected, says Bob Moylan.
In a city that struggles to keep the streets clean, how can officials have the audacity to charge extra for such a basic service? He heard the same complaints in 1993 when the concept was introduced in Worcester, Mass.
"People weren't happy," says Moylan, commissioner of Worcester's Department of Public Works and Parks. "But we were forced into it by a budget crisis. And that's what it takes."
Although the former industrial city with a population of about 174,000 is tiny compared to Philadelphia, its experience with the program - known as "Pay As You Throw" or PAYT - may be instructive, Moylan says.
His department's budget had been gutted, and there was nothing left to cut. So the city proposed charging residents 50 cents for each 30-pound trash bag. Recycling materials would be removed for free. Those who used the wrong bag or mixed recyclables with garbage would be given a warning - and if they persisted, charged fines.
The public hated the plan. It became the pivotal issue in that year's mayoral election, and the candidate who promised to kill pay-as-you-throw won. (His supporters went to the polls wearing black garbage bags over their heads.)
In late November of that year, PAYT went into effect. Almost immediately, Moylan says, recycling rates jumped to 40 percent of all refuse. People who had been putting out seven trash bags a week cut down to one or two. The tonnage of garbage the city took to landfills was halved.
"It was a resounding success," says Moylan. PAYT was so popular that in January, when the mayor took office, he couldn't muster the votes on the City Council to repeal it.
There were problems, Moylan says. Primarily people taking their trash illegally to trash bins or trying to shove 60 gallons of junk into a 30-gallon bag.
"We have an inner city with tremendous poverty. But even in that area, within a couple of weeks, our compliance rate was in excess of 99 percent," he says. "I don't think Philadelphia would encounter any problems we didn't. The only difference will be in scale."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strongly advocates pay-as-you-throw and reports that 100 percent of the communities in Oregon, 81 percent in Wisconsin, and nearly half in California, including Los Angeles, use these programs. In Pennsylvania, it's 18 percent.
"You need a crisis to create the political will," says Moylan. "No politician in their right mind is going to do it unless they can frame it that in the long run this is going to be good."
So far in Philadelphia, the reaction has been mostly negative, says Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler. "People who are in favor of it don't call," she said yesterday in a phone interview.
After a series of public meetings, Cutler said, it became clear that if pay-as-you-throw is going to work here, the city has to reward people who cut down on their trash and charge a lower rate for those living in poverty.
Her initial proposal to charge a flat $5 fee is off the table, she said. The city is working on an alternative rate system, the details of which are under discussion.
For any plan to work, Cutler said, the city will have to educate the public, as Worcester did, about the true costs of the old system and the potential benefits of the new one.
Philadelphia's sanitation budget tops $100 million, including $46 million in landfill costs.
"I understand people are unhappy about paying for the service. They say, we pay taxes for it. But obviously, we don't pay enough taxes for what the city does or we wouldn't be in this position," she said. "I think this is a program whose time has come."
With the time and money saved by reducing the garbage sent to landfills, she said, the city can redirect funds and workers to fight illegal dumping, or re-institute street cleaning. And increasing recycling, she said, will benefit the environment.
Critics aren't buying it.
In a news release yesterday, City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski said: "Here are people who send their children to parochial and private schools, and they still pay their property taxes for the school district funding, and all they want is for the city to pick up their trash once a week.
"And now they are being told to put up some more money for the only thing they expect from the city. Are we trying to get our citizens to move out? We're not giving them reasons to stay."
In South Philadelphia, some of the resistance was more muted.
"Isn't that what taxes are for?" wondered Willie Mirsky. But the 39-year-old teacher of English as a second language at South Philadelphia High School said that if there were incentives for people who recycled more, he might reconsider.
"I'm not totally against the plan. It depends on how much money they'd charge and where they'd spend the funds that they save."
At a news conference yesterday, Mayor Nutter said, "Something's got to give," and spoke of the "need to grow up and get over some of these things, and to accept the economic realities."
But maturity may not necessarily be the ticket.
Among the most enthusiastic supporters of pay-as-you-throw, count Mirsky's son, Elias, age 41/2.
"We want people to recycle," he announced, and began dancing in a circle, chanting, "Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!"