Brewer trash a case study

Posted Dec. 12, 2010, at 7:12 p.m.

Some readers may have wondered why last week’s column focused on the change by a single community (Brewer) to a pay-as-you-throw system of trash disposal. We think it’s worth watching as a kind of case study.

As we noted, starting next month residents of Brewer will be required to buy city-approved bags for their household trash. The change will mark the six-month anniversary of zero-sort recycling in Brewer, which backers say increases recycling by householders who can put any recyclable materials into the same container.

It’s believed that Brewer is the first community in eastern-central Maine to combine pay-as-you-throw and zero-sort. As such, it will become a case study for waste disposal scholars of the future. Much will be made of the carrot that zero-sort recycling adds to the recipe of our society’s desire for a diminished waste stew. Contrast this with the stick approach, namely a fee-per-bag that many householders will see as an added tax for a service the city already provides.

Defenders of the change will note that the cost of disposing of trash — all trash — is going up, big time. So are the stakes, as the closing date of Brewer’s existing landfill looms. Development of an industrial park could push the closing date to some time 2012. With prospects of developing additional landfills in the region virtually nil, the only option is sending trash to the PERC incinerator or Juniper Ridge landfill at whatever tipping fees may be in the future.

So what are the likely results of our case study, short- and long-term? Research done to date suggests a short-term increase in recycling rates accompanied by a drop in the “disposal rate” (what goes to the landfill or incinerator). Down the road, as residents get used to paying for by-the-bag disposal, recycling rates will start to drop and disposal rates will rise as residents backslide into complacent throwaway habits. The research also suggests that, while per-bag charges help a community deal with its waste disposal costs, those fees are not likely to have a long-term positive influence on our recycling habits.

All of which results from the conditioning our society has imposed on us as consumers. We’re bombarded with messages about ramping up our rates of consumption in order to get the lagging economy back in gear, especially at this time of year. Even the word “consume” implies some sort of all-out destruction of a product or service in order to make us truly productive and useful members of society.

It’s in the interest of all consumers to reduce the amount of stuff we turn into trash, and that requires a two-pronged approach. Recycling the maximum amount possible is step one, by using municipal recycling programs and backyard composting to minimize food waste. The second step is a longer-range solution: reduce the amount of excess packaging and premature product demise that mark so much of our current consumption.

More on those steps next week.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at contacexdir@live.com.

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