Reducing garbage amountFor the past two years, I've been chasing down a crazy goal: to reduce my family's trash enough that I could call the company which collects our garbage and tell it that, instead of picking up our one 32-gallon can every week, we'd need the service only once a month. Even though we've always been obsessive about recycling, it had taken our family of five a long time to reach this place.

First, we'd started composting all of our kitchen waste, feeding the tastiest scraps to our backyard chickens. Then, I'd begun a serious and totalitarian campaign to stop buying things with excess packaging, toting my recycled glass jars to the co-op to fill with dried cherries and black beans and brown rice flour from the bulk bins; baking cookies and breads instead of buying them; saying 'no' to single-serving foods. It didn't hurt that we were on a "financial fast" that had us buying very little we didn't need.

Now, each week on Sunday afternoon, my husband will knit his brow and ask me to "find some more garbage!" as if I was secretly a candidate for Hoarders and could just run to my closet and sheepishly pull out a few bags I'd squirreled away. We were regularly pulling a half-full can to the curb, even with all his best efforts.

I'll admit I was giggling to myself a bit when I finally dialed the number during office hours (the disposal business, they close early) and proudly asked to change my service. I'd convinced myself I would save a bundle; sometime in the past year, our rates had gone up more than 20%, so we were paying about $50 every two months.

"We'll have to adjust your bill!" said the friendly woman on the other end of the phone. "Let's see... you were paying $25.30 a month... your new rate will be $16.45!" I almost dropped the phone; I was saving one-third, eight dollars a month, to get one-quarter of the service. I'd be better off splitting with my neighbor and alternating weeks. In Portland, Ore., as in nearly every city and township in the country, rates are set by local officials and can't be negotiated or reasoned with.

I checked around. Most cities who publish the garbage rates online don't even have a quote for once-a-month pickup; a few, like Kirkland, Wash., sensibly charged about a quarter of the cost for the service. In many southern states, trash pickup is twice-a-week, due, I suppose, to the increased stink of the typical American garbage stew of food waste, pet droppings, dirty diapers, paper and plastic, oh my! in the hot weather.

I have to admit it pains me a bit to know that my long-awaited milestone in environmental consciousness, materalism-avoidance, and frugality did not, after all, save me a proportionate amount of money. It also hurts to know that garbage collectors nationwide, and the city officials who set their rates, haven't yet keyed into the powerful financial incentive they could wield to woo families into a less disposable lifestyle. Can you imagine, if you were awarded a discount in your bill for every week you didn't bring the can to the curb? It wouldn't give everyone an incentive, but the average American throws away 4.39 pounds of trash every day. If one in five average Americans were to cut that in half to save money, we'd be headed somewhere.

For now, I'll collect my tiny reward -- that $8.85 a month -- and take comfort in knowing that I'm not really doing this for the money. But I'd urge this great nation of ours, with elected officials who've figured out how to push and prod us with financial incentives a hundred different ways, to consider this one, too. It's simple, sensible, rational, and could have a surprising cascade of effects (one-third of America's trash is packaging -- what if the "packaged goods" companies got on board, too?).

Last night, I took out a kitchen-sized bag of trash to the can and looked smugly at its emptiness. One week, one bag. I'm right on target -- here's hoping the rest of the country starts aiming there, too.

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