City ready to engage public on pay-as-you-throw trash system

Steve Davis, an employee of Pine Tree Waste of Hermon, throws trash bags into a garbage truck in Bangor. The city is considering a pay-as-you-throw trash collection program that would require Bangor residents to puchase trash bags from the city that would be collected at the curb.
Steve Davis, an employee of Pine Tree Waste of Hermon, throws trash bags into a garbage truck in Bangor. The city is considering a pay-as-you-throw trash collection program that would require Bangor residents to puchase trash bags from the city that would be collected at the curb.
Posted March 09, 2011, at 6:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — In the coming weeks, city councilors and municipal staff will begin selling the idea of implementing both single-stream recycling and a “pay as you throw” trash removal program for Bangor residents.

Sensing that the changes may not be an easy sell, Bangor officials are working hard to sharpen and simplify their message.

“We need to make sure our residents know what to do if and when these changes are made,” Councilor Gerry Palmer said Wednesday. “It’s a good opportunity for us to engage the public on the benefits.”

Councilors met Tuesday to talk about a strategy for rolling out the plan to residents. That strategy, which will include public forums, mailers and information on the city’s public access television station, is expected to begin within the next month.

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.

Palmer pointed to the neighboring city of Brewer as a success story that should be shared. Earlier this year, Brewer switched to single-stream recycling, coupled with a trash bag fee system, and has seen its recycling rates skyrocket.

“We’ve had a pretty good buy-in from the people of Brewer,” Assistant City Manager James Smith said. “There have been some concerns and some people don’t like it, but as we’ve educated residents, most have warmed to the idea.”

City councilors in Bangor, who voted earlier this year to begin moving toward a single-stream recycling and pay-as-you-throw system, can only hope its residents follow a similar path as Brewer.

As it is, some critics — the same critics who have opposed an arena complex and the city’s plans to consolidate emergency dispatch services — have threatened to initiate a petition drive if councilors vote to create a fee system for trash removal.

“They certainly have every right to do that, but they also have every right to run for council,” Palmer said. “I think some people are under the impression that councilors are unvetted, but we’ve all been elected by the people. We’re not making decisions without thinking long and hard about them.”

While Brewer is the success story, other communities, such as Sanford, have rebelled against a pay-as-you-throw system. Voters in Sanford overturned a council decision last November.

“I think as people learn more about it, they will see the benefit,” Palmer said.

Bangor City Manager Catherine Conlow said whether or not the city decides to implement the changes soon would not have a significant effect on the 2011 budget. The city already is looking at an expected increase of $180,000 in solid waste disposal costs next year, Conlow said.

In the future, though, Bangor’s trash removal costs are expected to increase considerably, which means taxpayers are likely to see increases either in property tax rates or in fees, according to Conlow.

Still, it won’t be easy persuading taxpayers who already feel like they are overburdened to pay for their trash bags since they have never had to before.

“Of course, we’re worried about people doing inappropriate things like burning their trash or dumping it illegally, but other communities have proven that hasn’t happened all that much,” Palmer said.

Besides, Bangor could make adjustments as necessary. Brewer, Smith said, already has made some changes to address residents’ needs and concerns. Initially, the bags that were sold by the city were too flimsy, so they were replaced. The city also has increased the rate of curbside recycling pickup from every month to every other week.

Palmer agreed that implementing big changes to recycling and rubbish removal in Bangor could be a bumpy road at times but said if the city does nothing, the situation could only get worse.

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