BANGOR, Maine — Nearly 20 years ago, city leaders considered asking residents to pay a small fee for trash bags in an effort to boost recycling throughout the city.
The idea, relatively new at the time, was wildly unpopular and didn’t get far.
Since then, as recycling awareness has increased, communities across the state and country have instituted bag fees and other measures with varying degrees of success.
Will Bangor, which still has a low recycling rate, be the next to come on board?
“As long as consumers don’t have an incentive, they won’t do anything,” recycling committee member Nick Bearce said this week.
For several months, Bearce and others have been discussing changes to the city’s philosophy on how to handle solid waste and recycling. Led by City Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick, the recycling committee has outlined a number of potential options, including doing away with recycling altogether, exploring a “pay-as-you-throw” or bag-fee system and everything in between.
“The way we handle solid waste is very inefficient; it’s not highly organized,” Gratwick said.
Gratwick and others presented their preliminary report to the city’s infrastructure committee this week and will make more formal recommendations later this year. The ensuing debate is likely to evoke memories of the past, although Bearce said he thinks the debate from the early 1990s is irrelevant to the recent discussion.
“I hope the general public is more informed now, although I’m not sure,” he said.
Bangor began its voluntary recycling program in the 1980s and today’s version is largely unchanged. Residents can get free blue, 18-gallon containers, or “Binnys,” and leave them on the side of the road next to their nonrecyclable trash. The city also has a drop-off facility on Maine Avenue that is open 24 hours a day.
Among the recyclable items Bangor accepts are: newspaper and magazines, glass, aluminum and No. 2 plastic. Bangor does not recycle other types of plastic or boxboard that is commonly used in consumer packaging. Bangor’s public works department gathers recyclable material, stores it and then resells what it can to generate revenue to offset expenses.
General, or nonrecyclable waste, is picked up weekly in the city under a contract with Pine Tree Waste Services, a division of Casella Waste Management. That trash is then burned at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) in Orrington at a cost to Bangor of about $650,000 annually.
Among the reasons for considering changes are the decreasing prices of commodities, which means the city cannot generate as much revenue selling its recyclables. Additionally, the city has to renegotiate its contract with Pine Tree next year and there is no guarantee that the rates will stay the same. Finally, Bangor’s current rate with PERC is considered very favorable but is subject to change in 2018 to a much higher rate.
“There is no urgency right now to change, but we should be looking at this,” Gratwick said.
Depending on which estimates are used, Bangor’s recycling rate is anywhere from 10 to 30 percent, and most recycling committee members agreed that even 30 percent is too low. Those who spoke at this week’s meeting agreed that some sort of cost-shifting needs to be implemented in order to reward those who recycle. What that will look like is where the debate gets tricky and, as with most things, money is the overriding factor.
“As soon as you start talking about paying for bags, recycling booms,” said committee member James Gallant. “Sure, things are OK now, but they can always be better.”
Kathy Guerin, also a member of the recycling committee, said Bangor has given residents plenty of opportunities to recycle and the rates are slipping.
“I understand changes can be a tough sell, but remember that we started recycling in the first place during another recession,” she said.
The bag fee model is the easiest way to encourage recycling, but it also is the most controversial.
“I lived through the pay-per-bag discussion and it didn’t go well,” Councilor Pat Blanchette said. “In fact, it wasn’t pretty.”
Still, Blanchette said it could be time to have the discussion again.
Another option that’s being considered by the recycling committee is what’s known as a single stream system. Basically, it would allow consumers to collect all recyclable material together, then dump it at a processing facility. That option is great for consumers but also is costly to implement.
Most agree that the current system needs updating, but Bangor Public Works Director Dana Wardwell also said it’s important to remember that recycling is only one piece.
“We always think of the three R’s [reduce, reuse, recycle], but sometimes the first two are neglected,” he said.