Unit-based pricing (UBP) garbage collection is a simple concept: how much you pay depends on how much you throw away. The cost is based on units disposed rather than on a set fee charged to everyone or a system paid for through property taxes. Alternatively called “volume based,” “variable rate,” or “pay as you throw,” the system treats garbage like any other utility—you pay for units used.

Units of garbage can be measured by the number of bags or cans used, by the size of container used, or by weight. Weight is seldom used in residential programs because it would be costly to implement, but it is the basis for charging for the disposal of industrial waste (i.e., tipping fees at landfills). Most residential systems utilize a bag or tag system.

Potential benefits of UBP systems include reduction in waste being landfilled; increased recycling, composting, and other waste reduction activities; possible cost stabilization; and a more equitable system.

Potential costs of UBP include increased illegal dumping and burning; revenue inadequacy and instability; possible increased costs; and public education costs.

UBP systems can be structured in a variety of ways, depending on what is best for your community. The following are short descriptions of various types of systems according to the State of Iowa Implementation Guide for Unit-Based Pricing:

I. Pre-paid bag

In this system, specially marked bags, usually in two sizes, are sold to customers through retail outlets or city offices. Only garbage in these “official” bags is collected. Often, weight limits are also set on the bags. Examples of this system in the South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency (SCISWA) area can be found in the cities of Brooklyn, Deep River, Malcom, Montezuma, and Searsboro in Poweshiek County.

In these towns, the residents are charged a basic monthly fee of $6.65 to $7.50, which covers weekly curbside recycling services. Residents then pay $1.00 or $1.50 per bag (depending on the size). These cities contract with a single hauler who also collects the recyclables. Other cities may have several haulers.


  • Easy to understand
  • Lower cost to implement (distribution, storage, and inventory of bags)
  • Can provide more flexible increments of waste disposal units (smaller bags, lower cost)
  • Clean, fast collection
  • Pre-paid


  • Must set up distribution system (retail outlets, city offices)
  • Uncertain revenues
  • Potential extra staff time for cities if bags are sold at city offices
  • Animals may get into bags
  • Must place weight restrictions on bags to prevent over-stuffing

II. Pre-paid tag or sticker

Like the pre-paid bags, pre-paid tags or stickers are purchased by customers at city offices or retailer outlets. Only containers and bags with the official sticker/tag affixed will be picked up by haulers.


  • Flexible size increments
  • Pre-paid
  • Easy to understand
  • Easier and less costly to implement than subscription systems
  • Cost of stickers/tags is less than bags
  • Can be used for disposal of bulky items or white goods


  • Revenue uncertainty
  • Enforcement of size limitations difficult
  • Not always easy for hauler to see
  • Tags/stickers may not always adhere to bag
  • Tags/stickers could be removed by vandals/thieves

III. Subscription system

Under this system, residents sign up for the amount of service they want—either a certain number of bags/containers in a week or month or different sizes of containers. In the SCISWA area, Russell and Chariton in Lucas County have these systems. In Chariton, haulers provide three different sizes of totes at three rates ($11, $13, and $15 per month). Any extra garbage is subject to additional charges by the haulers. Russell’s system allows residents to have garbage picked up once a week, twice a month, or once a month. There is a limit on how much can be discarded. The city contracts with a hauler who reports back monthly to the city on the residences and type of service, plus the tonnage disposed.


  • Revenues are stable and easy to forecast
  • In some systems, may not need new cans
  • Containers can be labeled to help with enforcement
  • Animal-safe containers
  • Does not add plastic to the landfill


  • Higher implementation costs with new containers
  • Less incentive to reduce waste because of size of container (might as well fill it up)
  • Complex billing system
  • More difficult for haulers to keep records on the route

IV. Weight-based system

Weight-based systems are very rare for residential programs because of the cost of necessary equipment to weigh and record data for each household. Most weight-based systems are currently pilot projects.


  • More precise measurement of waste leads to more incentive to recycle
  • Fair and easy to understand


  • Requires high-tech, expensive equipment
  • More complicated billing system

V. Hybrid systems

Hybrid systems offer a basic service for a flat fee and charge for extra service. For example, a community may allow residents to set out one or two bags of garbage as part of their basic fee. For any additional garbage, special tags, stickers, or bags must be purchased. This is the most popular kind of UBP system in Iowa.


  • Easier transition for communities to UBP
  • More stable revenues
  • Can be implemented quickly and inexpensively
  • Doesn’t lock in this system; can change to other system at a later date
  • No new billing system needed


  • No incentive to reduce waste at lowest service level
  • Harder for residents to understand why they must pay two fees

This is a quick explanation of unit-based pricing systems. For more information, see the list of publications below.

It is important to remember that implementing unit-based pricing will not happen overnight. To find the system that best fits the needs of the community, some study and input from waste haulers and the public will be needed.

The first step to implementing a plan should be to set up a committee made up of city council members, waste haulers, and interested citizens. This committee should gather information through public meetings and available resources to come up with recommendations. There are resources to help you, including staff at the DNR and SCISWA. It is also helpful to talk to other cities that have already implemented UBP to get their input. Some of these resources are listed below.

However you decide to do UBP, there are several things you will need to consider. To be effective, most cities (if not all) with UBP require garbage pick-up for every residence and business within city limits. Also, many communities enact burn bans. Mechanisms for enforcement should also be considered.

Access to recycling, though not technically required under the provisions of the law mandating UBP for our cities, is necessary. This gives residents a place to get rid of their recyclables so they don’t have to dispose of them in the garbage.

Education, not only on the new system, but also on waste reduction, is vital as part of implementing UBP.


Rick Hurt, 641-828-8545, rhurt@sciswa.org

1736 Hwy T-17
Tracy, IA 50256


EPA’s Pay as You Throw Toolkit

Unit-Based Pricing: Iowa DNR