PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A statewide trend in trash removal aimed at reducing the waste going into landfills is being blamed for increasing the littering problem in one northern Maine city.
Since Presque Isle began the so-called “pay as your throw” method of trash disposal, residents are reporting seeing a steady increase of roadside garbage dumping in and around their town.
Under pay-as-you-throw, residents purchase special trash bags which are the only bags collected by the municipal trash hauler. The cost of trash pickup is covered by the cost of the bags, with no additional money owed by the resident to the hauler.
In the case of Presque Isle, the bags run from $8.50 to $16.50 for packets of five 15 or 30 gallon bags, respectively.
“The cost of the bags incorporates the cost of managing the waste [and] can vary from town to town,” Melanie Loyzim, director of Maine’s bureau of remediation and waste management, said last week. “Across the nation the statistics do show it has had an impact.”
According to Loyzim, it comes down to simple economics.
“People are more likely to throw something away if it won’t cost them extra,” she said.
For example, Loyzim said if a homeowner pays a flat $30-per-month fee for trash pickup, regardless of quantity, there is often little thought given to how much is ending up in the landfills.
“But when I have to start paying say, $3 a bag to throw out my garbage, I start to budget for it differently,” she said.
A head of lettuce that has gone bad, she said, can be composted instead of just being tossed out, thus reducing the amount of garbage to be collected.
“Composting is one of the elements that has the biggest impact,” Loyzim said. “Particularly for people who have the space or yard [to compost], it is the easiest way to reduce 40 percent of municipal waste.”
The down side to all of this, she said, is not everyone’s on board with paying based on what they generate for waste versus a flat fee, especially if it hits them in the pocketbook.
“Tossing is one of the most common arguments against the [pay-as-you-throw] program,” she said. “Because some people understand it will cost them more, they will find an alternative way to get rid of their trash.”
In Presque Isle, some residents and drivers are reporting a steady increase in roadside trash since the city began pay-as-you-throw in 2011.
“It is totally disgusting,” said Donna Raymond, an 18-year resident of the Parsons Road in Presque Isle, a 10-mile stretch of road between the city and Washburn that seems particularly popular for trash tossers.
“It’s not just a can here or a bottle there,” Raymond said. “It’s full bags of used diapers, cereal boxes and cans [and] I can definitely say it coincided with pay-as-you-throw.”
Raymond is not the only one who has noticed an increase in roadside trash.
“I have seen it, but no one has called to complain,” said Roy Guidry, police chief in neighboring Washburn. “We did have some issues with people using store dumpsters in town, but not anymore.”
Matt Irwin, Presque Isle’s chief of police, said he has not received any official complaints stemming from trash dumping along city routes.
“We’ve gotten maybe four or five reports, but not of garbage along the roads,” he said. “It’s more about someone using a commercial Dumpster or trash cans for personal use.”
The move behind Presque Isle adopting pay-as-you-throw, according to the man in charge of municipal waste, was threefold — extend the life of the local landfill through reducing the waste stream, increase recycling and reduce the local tax burden.
“One of the big advantages of the pay-as-you-go system is it is a fair system,” Dana Fowler, Presque Isle director of public services, said. “You pay based on what you throw away.”
For the average household, Fowler said, that can translate into money saved versus paying a flat, monthly rate.
“But some people do have more trash so they may not see that savings,” he said. “I do hear stories of incidents of people just throwing trash out along the road, but in general, in my opinion, that is because people don’t respect other people’s property [and] it was that way before pay-as-you-throw.”
Longtime Presque Isle resident and cyclist Penny McHatten does not agree.
McHatten frequently bicycles along the Parsons Road and leads a weekly women’s ride that often includes that route.
“When we first started riding this year the garbage was really prevalent,” she said. “There was debris everywhere on both sides of the road where people had thrown bags, and when those bags break, the garbage scatters and the wind takes it everywhere.”
McHatten, who said she has been cycling along the Parsons Road for about 15 years, said the amount of roadside trash increased with Presque Isle’s adoption of pay-as-you-throw.
“There is no question it coincided with pay-as-you-throw,” she said. “It’s obvious to me there are so many people who don’t want to spend the money to buy the bags but they still have garbage to get rid of, so if they can’t find a Dumpster to toss it into, they throw it along the road.
“We walk our dogs along the road and my dogs have a short attention span,” Raymond said. “If they see trash, the next thing I know they are digging dirty diapers out of the ditch.”
Both Raymond and McHatten say they have seen bears with cubs this spring investigating what has become a miles-long smorasboard for wildlife.
“The more trash you leave laying around — especially food scraps — the more bears are going to be tempted, especially this time of year,” Doug Rafferty, spokesman for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said. “The bears are going to follow their noses and find the garbage and you are going to have conflicts when that happens.”
Fowler admits not everyone is a fan of pay-as-you-throw and said some residents have asked for a citywide referendum on the issue.
What has changed, Fowler said, is the amount of residential trash ending up in the city’s landfill.
“There has been a dramatic decrease in tonnage,” he said. “That decrease has been 29 percent since we started pay-as-you-throw, compared to the previous five-year average.”
At the same time, he said, recycling has seen a slight increase.
That really is the whole point behind pay-as-you-throw, Loyzim said.
“The success really depends on the individual town,” she said. “It depends on the willingness of the community [and] how interested they are in encouraging recycling.”
According to a 2010 report generated by the now defunct State Planning Office, 150 Maine communities had a pay-as-you-throw program.
The city of Portland began using the system in 1999 and, according to its environmental programs manager Tony Moon, it has been a great success.
“As soon as we started we saw recycling go from 7 to 30-plus percent,” he said. “Before [pay-as-you-throw] the city as a whole threw out 23,000 tons of trash and last year it was at 9,500 tons.”
Moon added he’s heard no complaints of illegal dumping of trash around Portland in the wake of pay-as-you-throw.
Enforcement of illegal dumping, Loyzim said, is often up to local police departments or code enforcement officers.
“The idea with pay-as-you-throw is to make the cost of waste disposal more tangible,” Loyzim said.