BANGOR, Maine — The city has taken a big step toward making wholesale changes to its recycling and rubbish removal programs by exploring specific costs associated with single-stream recycling and also evaluating a pay-as-you-throw option for trash collection.
Earlier this week, members of the City Council’s government operations committee authorized staff to submit requests for proposals to companies that offer single-stream recycling, which allows residents to put all recyclables together in one receptacle. That option is not necessarily a cost-saver — it actually would require an initial city investment — but studies have shown that it drastically increases recycling participation because it’s convenient. Bangor now has an extremely low recycling rate.
City staff also was directed this week to study further the possibility of instituting a pay-as-you-throw trash collection system that would require residents to purchase trash bags, which would be collected curbside. This option is a user fee rather than a general taxpayer expense and could help subsidize the cost of single-stream recycling, reduce property taxes or both. Pay-as-you-throw has become more and more common in communities across the state and has been shown to increase recycling rates, but it’s not always popular.
Any changes likely would not be made until much later this year, but City Engineer Jim Ring said it’s important for the city to take the step of seeing exactly what other choices would cost.
“Change of any kind is always a challenge,” he said. “We would need a significant amount of lead time to educate the public. These are big, expensive programs.”
Historically, the City Council has not taken a strong position on recycling or solid waste, but the two municipal services are closely linked, and Ring said recent financial challenges might be an impetus for change.
Kathy Guerin, a member of the city’s recycling committee who has a long history of private sector experience in solid waste, said Bangor needs to make changes whether they are going to be popular or not.
“Pay-per-throw is not as new or controversial anymore,” she said, referring to large communities such as Portland and Brunswick that have done this with success. “The state generates far too much municipal solid waste.”
If Bangor implemented a pay-per-bag system, it would reduce the fiscal year 2011 budget by an estimated $1.015 million, which is what the city pays for curbside rubbish collection. That money instead would be paid by users at an average cost of $133 per homeowner per year, assuming a fee of $1.70 a bag and a 30-gallon capacity bag.
Nick Bearce, a recycling committee member, said because Bangor is a service and commercial center, businesses end up subsidizing the cost of trash pickup. A pay-per-throw system addresses that.
The city now contracts with a private company for trash removal service. That contract runs out in June. Ring said the city’s best course of action is to negotiate a one-year contract with the same company (a typical contract is five years) in order to explore other options.
In addition to a pay-as-you throw system, the city will look at the costs of automated trash pickup. Instead of garbage men and women picking up bags on the side of the road, the work would be done by a large mechanical arm attached to a truck and controlled with a joystick. Initial estimates suggest this option could save money.
As for the recycling changes, there are many variables, Ring said. For instance, Bangor’s recycling processing center will need significant, costly improvements in the near future, and if the city makes substantive changes to recycling, where does the processing facility fit in? Bangor also processes recyclables for 33 area communities.
Another issue is the availability of single-stream processing, since the closest sorting center is in Westbrook.
City councilors appeared open-minded to changes, but they are likely to be focused squarely on the costs and benefits.
“There is a lot to chew on here, and this is a moving target,” Gerry Palmer said. “We don’t want this to end up hurting taxpayers.”