ORONO, Maine — Residents recycle more in communities that use pay-as-you-throw trash disposal programs, and some people feel social pressure to be as environmentally conscious as their neighbors, according to results of a survey conducted by a University of Maine economics graduate student.
The survey also found those with lower incomes admitted to more illegal burning or dumping.
UMaine graduate student Travis Blackmer, who is now a lecturer and undergraduate coordinator for the School of Economics and research associate for the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, conducted the online survey about municipal solid waste handling in 2014 and presented his findings at the Maine Resource Recovery Association conference earlier this year.
“I got 750 full responses and another 162 partial responses [and found that] 74 percent of citizens recycled more, 22 percent composted more and 32 percent consciously purchased products with less packaging once [pay-as-you-throw] was implemented in their town,” Blackmer said Friday in an email. “There were some ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitudes surrounding recycling behaviors where people were concerned if others noticed that they weren’t recycling.”
The total amount of trash a household produced dropped from 38 gallons per week in communities without pay-as-you-throw to 25 gallons per week after the program was implemented, which is about a 33 percent decrease, Blackmer’s data show. The programs require residents to pay for each bag of trash they throw out.
Residents from 172 communities from all over Maine took the survey, with Waterville residents contributing about 17 percent of the numbers.
Most people in communities with pay-as-you-throw programs responded that it was “easier to comply” than they thought it would be, and most considered the costs “fair,” the survey results state.
“Wealthier households reported a much easier time reducing their waste from [pay-as-you-throw], likely due to their ability to adjust all the ‘stuff’ they are purchasing,” Blackmer said. “Lower income households are much less flexible with their purchasing behavior.”
The survey results show that people who are “economically stressed” also were 7 percent more willing to break the law to dispose of their trash.
“People who identified themselves as economically stressed … were much more likely to do negative waste shifting behaviors, such as illegally burning and dumping, bringing waste to work or dropping it off in commercial dumpsters,” Blackmer said.
He also found that the economically stressed “used larger bags on average and generate more trash,” the UMaine graduate student found.
Brewer started zero-sort recycling and pay-as-you-throw programs at the same time in 2010, and Old Town went to pay-as-you-throw in 2012. Orono started zero-sort in 2013, and Bangor started zero-sort in July 2014, joining about 50 other area towns that participate in the recycling program offered by Casella Waste Systems. Zero-sort recycling is putting all the materials in a single container for pickup.
Pay-as-you-throw programs in Aroostook County have resulted in some roadside garbage dumping, according to residents in Presque Isle in 2013, two years after the program started.
“I think there is room to do much more with this information,” Blackmer said.