BANGOR, Maine — Big changes to the city’s recycling and trash removal programs likely are coming later this year, but city councilors and staff want to make sure they educate residents about what the changes will mean.
Councilors agreed Tuesday to begin directing staff to move toward single-stream recycling coupled with a pay-as-you-throw system for rubbish collection. Staff will draft a proposal detailing the logistics and costs associated with the shift and report to the council in three weeks.
If everything goes well, Bangor could implement the changes by July 1 to coincide with the next fiscal year budget.
Geoff Gratwick, the City Council’s representative to the recycling committee, has been involved in discussions for several years about how to improve Bangor’s recycling participation rate. He believes single-stream recycling and fee-based trash removal is the best combination for the city but said councilors should be prepared to spend several months communicating the benefits of the change and listening to the concerns of residents.
Although 180 communities in Maine have moved to single-stream recycling, including nearby Brewer, residents in four of those communities have overturned the change by citizens referendum and Gratwick does not want Bangor to join that list.
“Education will be crucial,” he said.
Council Chairwoman Susan Hawes and Councilor Cary Weston both agreed that the city needs to reach out to the public, but they don’t want to drag the education effort on for too long.
“Public listening sessions fail. I’m not against it, but does it work?” Weston said. “Until something stops working, people don’t pay attention. We’re not going to hear from people until their trash is left at the end of their driveway.”
Weston used the example of last year’s digital television conversion. Consumers across the country were notified months in advance of the pending change and were told what steps they needed to take. When the deadline came, so many people were scrambling that Congress extended the deadline.
The discussion over single-stream recycling and pay-as-you-throw trash removal is not new. Other states implemented those changes more than a decade ago, and communities across Maine have begun to follow suit.
Councilor Gerry Palmer said he remembers as a boy burning trash in 55-gallon drums in the backyard. That was accepted then, but in a more environmentally conscious world it’s simply not done anymore.
Single-stream recycling allows residents to put all their recyclables, approximately 25 different materials, together in one receptacle without sorting. The method is convenient and has proved to be effective in boosting recycling rates.
However, single-stream is also labor-intensive and costly.
By implementing a pay-as-you-throw system for trash collection, the city can charge residents a small fee to purchase trash bags, or tags, and use some of that revenue to offset increased costs. A new fee also would create an added incentive to recycle because, in theory, residents will throw away less if they have to pay for it.
Some councilors remain wary of adding a fee, because most Bangor property owners are of the understanding that they are paying for trash removal through their taxes.
But the financial picture is more complicated than that.
Currently, the city pays a fee for trash disposal at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington, which burns trash to produce electricity.
Bangor, along with many other communities, enjoys a favorable rate from PERC, but that rate is temporary, City Manager Catherine Conlow said.
“In five years, we’re going to see our rates go up considerably. We’re trying to plan ahead,” she said. “This is about controlling our disposal costs in incremental steps.”
More detailed cost breakdowns are expected to be presented to councilors in the coming weeks, but there are many variables for the council to consider. Will they require residents to buy special bags, or will they use tags or stickers? How much would each bag or sticker cost? Where would they be sold? How will the city handle low-income residents who cannot afford the new fees?
The city also could explore 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. This option is costly at first but cost-effective over the long term.
Bangor also will need to decide what to do with its current recycling processing center on Maine Avenue, which processes recyclables for the city as well as more than 30 area communities.
Once the education process begins, councilors agreed that the message needs to be consistent, clear and simplified.
“A majority of this is just biting it off and going for it,” Weston said.