June 18, 2018
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Charging for trash disposal effective for increasing recycling rates

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

BATH, Maine — Five years after it decided to take steps to increase recycling, Bath has reduced the amount of waste flowing into its landfill by nearly 60 percent.

Lee Leiner, deputy public works director for the city, said the effort, which has reduced the monthly curbside trash pickup from an average of 234 tons to about 100 tons, is seen as a resounding success in a city that is trying to delay millions of dollars in costs related to expanding its landfill. At the same time, the amount of materials being recycled has jumped from about 57 tons per month in 2006 to about 86 tons per month now.

Drastic progress such as has been seen in Bath is possible for any Maine municipality that ventures to do so, but the history here and elsewhere has shown that a two-pronged approach, including pay-per-bag trash disposal and a single-stream recycling program, is what works best.

In most towns, according to George MacDonald, program manager for waste management for the state planning office, solid waste disposal is the third- or fourth-most expensive budget item, which provides a cash-in-hand incentive for local governments and often for taxpayers. He said approximately 150 of Maine’s 496 communities use a pay-per-bag system in which homeowners either pay a fee for each bag of trash or pay to dispose of their waste by weight.

“It encourages people who have to pay to get rid of their trash to recycle more, and it also causes them to look more closely at what they’re buying,” said MacDonald. “Mainers are very thrifty.”

In Bath, single-stream recycling, which allows homeowners to dispose of recycled material together as opposed to separating different materials, was instituted in November 2006, which Leiner said resulted in a modest increase. It wasn’t until a year later when the city required residents to purchase distinctive blue trash bags at a cost of $1.25 per 15-gallon bag and $2 per 30-gallon bag that drastic changes were seen.

“The people here like single-stream recycling because it makes it so much easier to recycle,” said Leiner. “Our pay-as-you-throw program provided an additional incentive.”

But such programs aren’t always easy to implement. Bangor’s infrastructure committee recently rejected a long-studied proposal to create a pay-per-bag program in conjunction with single-stream recycling. The rejection of the program was due in large part to the Queen City’s contract with Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., which expects a certain tonnage of trash annually.

According to MacDonald at the state planning office, many Maine communities began to implement pay-per-bag programs in the early 1990s. The vast majority of the 150 communities who made the switch are still using that system today.

“It’s not always easy, but once the programs have been adopted, they tend to stay in place,” said MacDonald.

MacDonald said there are about 70 Maine communities that use a single-stream recycling program, almost all of them having made the switch since 2007. He said the increasing popularity of single-stream recycling is due in large part to improvements in machinery that mechanically sorts recyclable material.

“What we’re doing is changing the behavior of people,” he said. “Before, we promoted keeping different materials clean and separate. Now materials are co-mingled.”

MacDonald said the state, which as a whole disposes of about 5,000 tons of trash per day, has a goal of increasing its recycling rate to 50 percent. In 2009, which is the most recent year for which data is available, the state had a recycling rate of 38.7 percent. Other than spreading the use of single-stream recycling, MacDonald said his office and others are putting a lot of effort into convincing people to compost their organic and natural waste — such as discarded food and yard debris — which together account for about 25 percent of the waste stream.

Victor Horton, executive director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, said food and yard waste, in addition to being plentiful, is heavy. That’s significant because towns pay for rubbish removal by the ton.

“There’s a lot of weight in leaves and organic materials,” said Horton. “It’s heavy and really weighs our trash down. A lot of people don’t like to think about this stuff, but once they look at their municipal budgets for waste removal, they suddenly understand.”

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