Trash Reckoning

Posted Jan. 24, 2011, at 9:37 p.m.

Maine municipalities are facing a day of reckoning. The cost of disposing of trash at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.’s incinerator in Orrington will go up precipitously over the next several years. Cities and towns can take a carrot-and-stick approach to reduce the volume of trash they ship to PERC.

The carrot is to educate the public about recycling. The commodities for which reliable and lucrative markets have been established are known, and most people can learn how to separate them from their trash. Generally, they include newspapers and magazines; office paper, that which is used in photocopiers and printers; cardboard, such as boxes; fiberboard, which is the material used in toothpaste packaging, 12-pack beverage containers and various food containers; aluminum cans, which must be cleaned; No. 2 plastic, such as milk containers; and clear and brown glass. A vigilant recycler can spot the commodity before it ends up in the trash, peeling the fiberboard backing from plastic packaging or snagging the inside of a paper towel roll before it gets tomato sauce on it from the kitchen counter.

One way municipalities are making it easier to recycle is to adopt a single-stream collection method. Instead of having residents sort their newspapers, cardboard and glass and deposit the material into the appropriate bins, single-stream recycling allows residents to dump all the material into a single bin. The commodities are sorted later.

Another way to reduce trash is for residents and businesses such as restaurants to compost food waste. Obviously, not everyone can dump their eggshells, coffee grounds, corn husks and banana peels in a backyard bin, but municipalities can set up composting at convenient and appropriate sites around town. Such waste accounts for a large part of the weight of municipal solid waste, and PERC charges by the ton.

The stick approach is simple: charge for trash disposal, just as PERC does. Many towns and cities have adopted this approach, charging $1, $2 or $2.50 per 33-gallon bag. By having to pay for the trash their household produces, people become more aggressive in their recycling habits. Often, they also become more aware of how their buying habits affect their trash production.

Opponents of the trash fee system say that disposal should be included in the property taxes they pay. But this ignores the many people who live in rental housing; should property owners subsidize apartment dwellers who make no effort to recycle? And, further, should diligent recyclers have to subsidize in their property taxes their neighbors who don’t recycle?

Another argument against charging for trash disposal is the fear that people will take to throwing bags along roadsides. This can and does happen. But society has already committed to the concept of paying for disposal — tires, TVs, refrigerators and computers all are assessed fees by state law.

Yet another argument for reducing the amount of municipal trash and therefore the frequency of trips to PERC is the rising cost of diesel fuel.

The state may never achieve the ambitious recycling goals set in the 1990s, but more people must commit to changing their habits.

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