Maine residents and businesses produced 2.5 million tons of waste in 2013, working out to 2.8 pounds of garbage per person each day.
While that’s less garbage per person than the national average (4.4 pounds), getting rid of all that waste is expensive. It’s consistently one of the top five expenses in municipal budgets, and an expense towns and cities are increasingly trying to reduce.
Policymakers have long had their eyes on waste reduction. In 1989, the Maine Legislature mandated that the state boost its recycling rate to 50 percent within 20 years. But 26 years later, Maine’s recycling rate has barely broken 40 percent, and it’s budged little in recent years.
Much of the trash Mainers throw into the waste bin can be recycled or composted instead. A 2011 waste characterization study by the University of Maine School of Economics revealed 22 percent of what Mainers throw away can be recycled and 38 percent composted.
Across Maine, municipalities have looked to more convenient recycling programs, pay-per-bag trash programs and local compost pickup in efforts to shrink the waste stream. By and large, they’ve succeeded in reducing waste, especially municipalities that have adopted single-stream recycling and started directly charging residents to dispose of their garbage.
No sort, no problem
More and more municipalities have adopted single-stream recycling in recent years to simplify recycling and make it more convenient. Rather than sort paper from plastic, residents can throw all recyclables into one bin with single stream.
After they switch over to single stream, towns and cities in Maine see, on average, a 5 to 10 percent reduction in the amount of waste they send to the incinerator or landfill, said Jim Dunning, assistant manager for Casella Waste Systems in northern Maine, which handles trash and recycling for a number of Maine towns.
Brewer is a good example of what single stream can do: Boost the amount of recycling and start to cut back on the amount of trash residents wheel to the curb.
In 2009, Brewer collected about 124 tons of recycling from the curb. That number jumped to 155 tons, a 25 percent increase, once the city rolled out single stream the next year. The amount of garbage collected also started to slide — from 2,943 tons in 2009 to 2,919 the next year.
When Orono and Old Town rolled out single-stream recycling, they also reported significant jumps in their recycling rates. And Bangor, which switched to single-stream recycling a year ago, sent 7,715 tons of trash off to the incinerator in 2014, 412 tons less than the previous year. This saved the city about $28,000.
But Dunning noted that recycling rates usually plateau after single stream takes hold. “It may take something drastic” to boost it, he said.
Pay to throw
That something might be pay-as-you-throw, a program in which residents have to pay for every trash bag they fill — a natural incentive to produce less trash.
After Brewer paired single stream with pay-as-you-throw in 2011, recycling collections jumped 285 percent, from 155 tons in 2010 to 597 tons in 2011. Brewer residents have consistently produced about the same amount of recycling ever since.
And the amount of trash they produce has dropped. Brewer sent 2,919 tons of waste to the PERC incinerator in Orrington in 2010. That volume dropped 49 percent after the city rolled out pay-as-you-throw. In 2011, the city sent 1,449 tons of trash to the incinerator. The amount of trash has held relatively steady ever since.
“You take responsibility for the waste you generate and don’t have to subsidize others’ wasteful behavior,” said Jennifer Griffith, project manager at the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association.
North Carolina-based WasteZero estimates that about one-third of Mainers live in a municipality that uses pay-as-you-throw. According to Griffith, those towns, on average, see 40 to 55 percent reductions in trash collections once they start charging for bags.
And less trash equals less money spent to dispose of it.
In its first year of pay-as-you-throw, Brewer saved $66,129 in fees paid to PERC. In 2010, Brewer spent $131,343 to incinerate its waste; that cost fell to $65,214 the next year. Since 2011, the city has saved $281,462 in total.
While the approach is generally popular among municipal officials, residents have not always embraced pay-as-you-throw. Some complain that the bag fee amounts to little more than a tax. Resistance has in some cases increased instances of illegal dumping, as was the case in Presque Isle after it adopted pay-as-you-throw in 2011.
You can compost that
“Organics is the next thing to go after” for municipalities that want to further shrink their waste stream, Dunning said.
The data suggest there’s a lot of compostable waste that can be diverted from the trash bin. According to the 2011 waste characterization study, organic material from food scraps and yard trimmings make up 43 percent of the waste towns send to either the landfill or incinerator.
Nationally, rinds, peels, crumbs and other food scraps make up at least 15 percent of the waste sent to landfills or incinerators, according to the EPA. Only 5 percent of food is composted by the agency’s estimates.
Small-scale efforts are afoot in a few Maine towns to divert food scraps from the trash bin.
In Skowhegan, about 25 households participate in a voluntary compost program run by the town’s solid waste and recycling center. By diverting food scraps and organic waste, Skowhegan has saved an estimated $15,000 per year in waste disposal, Randy Gray, town code enforcement officer and recycling facility director, told the Morning Sentinel in June.
In Greater Portland, Garbage to Garden has helped communities divert more than 2,000 tons of compostables from the landfill and incinerator since 2013. More than 3,700 households in the area pay a monthly fee to have their food scraps and other compostables picked up.
Garbage to Garden estimates it has saved Cumberland, Falmouth, Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Yarmouth nearly $144,000 since residents have composted, rather than thrown away, those orange rinds, banana peels, apple cores and crumbs.