WATERVILLE — City officials who want a pay-as-you-throw trash collection system with curbside recycling say the practice would be a win-win by reducing the amount of trash dumped in landfills and saving the city thousands of dollars.
Even so, others oppose changing the city’s current system of curbside trash pickup, which is free for tax-paying residents and for some apartment owners.
Those dueling opinions might clash Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. during a public comment and question session on the proposal in council chambers at The Center at 93 Main St. downtown. City councilors are not scheduled to vote on the trash proposal Tuesday, but will ultimately decide the issue.
But even as Waterville debates the future of its waste removal system, other Maine communities have already been using a similar method.
Eugene Alley, director of sanitation for the city of Sanford, said that in the 30 weeks since the program started, the solid waste tonnage decreased by about 40 percent and recycling increased by about 20 percent. To date, Sanford has saved $90,584 in disposal and transportation costs, Alley said.
“It’s safe to say that we’re planning to reduce the budget by $300,000, and it’s all pretty much due to the pay-as-you-throw program,” Alley said. “The future of trash is pay-as-you-throw. It makes people responsible for their own trash.”
But Waterville City Councilor Karen-Rancourt Thomas, D-Ward 7, said she’s against the pay-as-you-throw proposal. She represents many poorer residents in the South End who live on fixed incomes and say pay-as-you-throw would present a financial burden.
Under Waterville’s proposed system, also known as pay-per-bag, people would go to a store, buy special trash bags for $2, fill them with trash and leave the bags by the curb to be picked up by city workers. The city’s recommendation includes curbside recycling pickup at no additional cost to residents to be done by a private hauler hired by the city.
Rancourt-Thomas thinks the proposal is a great idea.
“However, I think it would work in some parts of the city, and in other parts, I don’t think it would,” she said. “I’ve talked to too many people who say, ‘no,’ and I think we as councilors need to listen to our constituents, and if they’re saying, ‘no,’ it’s no. I just don’t think it’s the right climate for it.”
South End resident Beverly Busque loudly echoed that sentiment at a recent council meeting, saying she and her neighbors are poor and making them buy special trash bags for the city service is unfair, especially when they already pay property taxes.
For a Waterville family putting out an average of two trash bags on weekly trash pickup day, for example, the pay-as-you-throw proposal would cost a little over $200 annually. Now, that same family might spend $20 to $40 annually on the same number of trash bags, depending on the brand, purchased at a local supermarket.
“This is just another way to bring money into the city — for you guys, not for us,” Busque said.
And Busque, like other proposal opponents, also thinks that illegal dumping will increase if people are forced to pay the city to dispose of their trash.
“If you’ve got dumping now, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said.
Alley said there may have been some illegal dumping in Sanford when the system was first enacted, but that has since decreased.
“That’s a myth that doesn’t usually materialize,” said Alley. “At the beginning of the program, Sept. 16, 2013, there was a little bit of it. We monitor the activity of illegal dumping. In 30 weeks we have had 23 reports of illegal dumping. We had 17 of those illegal dumpers identified and issued citations. It’s not a big problem. The last I heard illegal dumping taking place was March 19, and it was actually two bags of insulation. It wasn’t trash.”
Dana Fowler, director of public services for the town of Presque Isle, which has used pay-as-you-throw since 2011, said people dump illegally because they do not respect others, not because of the cost.
“I don’t think pay-as-you-throw contributes to dumping — that’s my opinion,” he said.
Waterville City Manager Michael Roy and other members of the city’s Solid Waste-Recycling Committee, including Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, recommend the city change to a pay-per-bag and curbside recycling system starting Sept. 1.
Roy said he supports the new system because city waste removal costs are slated to spike in 2018 when Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington stops taking the city’s trash. In addition, he said the new system would save the city money and it would align with how people pay for other utilities like electricity, water and sewer.
The city spends about $665,000 a year to dispose of its trash, and with pay-as you-throw, the estimated savings could be as much as $350,000 a year, according to Roy.
He and other committee members say having curbside recycling along with pay-as-you-throw is necessary. The recycling, to cost the city about $72,000 a year, would require people to put plastic, bottles, paper, cans and other items all in one container, to be separated after it is hauled away.
Roy maintains that Waterville residents will recycle more with a pay-as-you-throw system.
Sanford uses WasteZero, a nationwide corporation that partners with municipalities for the pay-as-you-throw system. Waterville also proposes to use WasteZero, according to Roy, who said he has not spoken to Sanford officials about their program.
WasteZero does all the administrative work for the trash bags. The city of Sanford uses orange 33-gallon bags, which cost residents $2 each; 15-gallon bags, which cost $1.25; and 8-gallon bags, which are $1. In Sanford, the bags are available at 10 locations, including Shaw’s supermarket, Hannaford, Walgreens, Aubuchon and Walmart, Alley said. WasteZero buys the bags and distributes them to those stores.
Alley estimates that 10 percent of the bags sold are 8-gallon bags. WasteZero sends Sanford a report every month that includes information about what stores order bags, how many and what size, he said.
“WasteZero’s great to work with,” Alley said. “They do everything: They take their cut right off the top, and there’s revenue for the sale of the bags. They get 12.52 percent for doing the administrative work — sales, warehousing, delivery to stores — everything. We do absolutely nothing.”
MAJORITY ACCEPT IT
Sanford’s use of pay-as-you-throw hasn’t always been smooth. It started paying per bag in 2010 but the system lasted only 16 weeks. Opponents forced a referendum in November of that year and defeated the system by a 60-40 vote, according to Alley, who has worked for Sanford 33 years and is scheduled to retire in June.
The Sanford City Council then decided to introduce the system again as a way to save money. That time, officials held neighborhood meetings, explained why the system was beneficial and garnered support, Alley said.
“We do have, and always will have, people who oppose it,” he said. “I think the majority of people have accepted it, whether they like it or not.”
People use their own containers for recycling, and the city gives them stickers that say “Sanford Recycles” that they attach to those containers, he said.
The city contracts with Pine Tree Waste for trash pickup, whereas Waterville would continue to do curbside pickup.
Presque Isle uses two sizes of yellow solid waste bags: 13-gallon bags that cost people $1.85 and 30-gallon bags, which sell for $3.45, according to Fowler, the public services director who has worked for Presque Isle 29 years.
Presque Isle uses 13-gallon blue bags for recycling; customers buy five bags for 80 cents, Fowler said. Recycling there is dual stream, meaning containers such as plastics and cans are placed in one bag, and paper, including officer paper, newspapers and magazine, is placed in another blue bag, he said. People place those bags at the curb only when they are full, he said. Glass is placed separately in a small grocery bag at the curb.
Presque Isle’s solid waste disposal tonnage decreased by 28 percent last year, he said.
“Half of that was due to pay-as-you-throw and half was due to the economy,” he said. “When the economy is bad, people buy less.”
Fowler said when Presque Isle started pay-as-you-throw, a lot of people did not know how to recycle and there was a large learning curve.
“We literally had about 3,000 phone calls, and about 3,000 visitors come to City Hall,” he said.
At first, as many as 50 people put the wrong items in the recycling bags and had to re-do them. Now, there may be six such instances of that in one day, he said.
“People know how to do it now,” he said. “They’ve learned what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Pay-as-you-throw, he said, is accepted after three years of being in place, even though a small percentage of people remain unhappy.
They still don’t like it, but the complaints are just about nonexistent now,” Fowler said.
In Waterville, the city picks up trash for apartments with three or fewer units; landlords must pay for trash receptacles and private collection if they have four or more units. How that would work with the new system is unclear.
Rancourt-Thomas, the city councilor, is convinced that recycling will be a big problem for people who live in apartments where there is no extra space to keep recyclables until they are hauled away.
“A lot of people are in apartment buildings where there’s no land,” she said. “Where are they going to put their recycling?”
Council Chairman Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, said he is not opposed to the proposed trash plan, but agrees with Rancourt-Thomas that now is not the time to change the system in Waterville. He added that most of the input from residents he has received about it has been negative.
“Nobody wants to go that way, and I understand why,” he said.
Waterville lost a lot of good-paying jobs and is trying to bounce back, but until it does, a change in the trash system should not occur, he said.
“Waterville’s at the lowest ebb it has probably ever been,” he said.
Stubbert said that mills closed in the 1990s, people left the city and a more transient population moved in, “bringing their problems with them and garbage collection is not one of the things they’re interested in.”
Stubbert said people from other communities continue to bring their trash into the city and leave it beside the road.
“That’s been going on for some time,” he said.