WATERVILLE — With city officials looking to convert solid waste disposal to a pay-as-you-throw system, residents are divided over the pros and cons of such a scheme.
Some say it will lead to increased household costs, particularly for low-income residents, many of whom already struggle to pay their bills, while others are touting the environmental benefits of what they expect will be an increase in recycling.
“I grew up recycling, and it’s been a huge part of my lifestyle,” said resident Denise Rohdin, 52, on a recent afternoon in downtown Waterville. “Once you learn to recycle, it becomes easy, especially with curbside pick-up because you don’t even need a vehicle.”
Rohdin and other residents in the city who are in favor of recycling say they support the proposed system, which received its first vote of approval from the City Council last Tuesday. But there are others who say it will only contribute another non-deductible cost to tax-paying residents who are used to having their trash taken away without the $2 it will cost per bag.
“I think it’s totally ridiculous,” said Jermain Martin, 39, a city resident who is a manager at Burger King in Waterville. “It’s hard enough as it is for me to pay for things, even with a full-time job. There are a lot of people on fixed incomes who can’t afford it.”
With residents wavering over whether or not to support the proposed system in Waterville, the city says it is necessary to maintain the city budget in the future. The Natural Resources Council of Maine says it supports pay-as-you-throw systems as a method of increased sustainability that more communities in Maine are starting to adopt.
“It’s the most effective way to reduce costs and increase recycling. I haven’t found any programs or policies that are as effective,” said Sarah Lakeman, sustainable Maine policy advocate and outreach coordinator for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The group is Maine’s largest nonprofit organization seeking to protect the environment and promote conservation.
The benefit of pay-as-you-throw comes largely from its relationship with efficient recycling programs, which provide an incentive for residents to recycle more — something that Lakeman says is not only more cost effective for municipalities but better for the environment.
With the new system the city is considering, curbside recycling would also become a part of services all residents receive. Single stream curbside recycling, which is what the city plans to start, is the easiest and most convenient method of recycling, according to Lakeman, and has made a difference in the amount of trash that ends up in landfills or incinerators.
In the new system, the city will pay $78,000 for a company called Sullivan Disposal to pick up recyclables twice per month and bring them to EcoMaine, a recyclables processing center in Portland. It’s a flat fee that covers any amount of recyclables the city wants disposed.
Now, the company Shredding on Site provides recycling in Waterville for residents to drop off recyclables in sorted bins. It is the official recycling center of the city but operates independently, and there is no cost to the city to run the facility, which also serves people in neighboring communities. The city signed a one-year contract with Shredding last June.
City manager Michael Roy said at the time that the one-year contract would give the city time to evaluate solid waste disposal, which officials say the city is spending too much money on.
“There’s this perception out there that this is all about the city trying to push people to recycle for the good of the environment, but that’s really not what it’s about,” said Erik Thomas, a city councilor and chairman of the City Council Solid Waste Committee. “What it’s about is the city’s budget. We need to reduce what the trash system costs, and the only way to do that is for people to recycle more.”
Thomas said Shredding on Site is already overwhelmed with more recycling than the center can process, although the city does not keep track of how many people recycle. Shredding owner Craig Lefebvre said his company is equipped to handle more recycling, but no one has approached him about it.
The budget that was preliminarily approved last Tuesday included spending $660,000 for solid waste disposal. The number represents about 2 percent of the total $37.2 million budget, or one mil rate point in the city’s tax rate of $27.40 per $1,000 of property value, according to Thomas.
That means that a $100,000 home in Waterville pays $100 per year for trash disposal.
In 2018, Penobscot Energy Recovery Company, which handles waste disposal for 187 municipalities in Maine, including Waterville, will close. That means the city will have to find an alternative place to take trash.
It also means a likely increase of between $200,000 and $300,000 per year for a new waste disposal contract, said Thomas.
Charging people to dispose of trash through pay-as-you-throw, something that about 40 percent of municipalities in Maine already do, according to Lakeman, is an effective way to increase recycling. And despite some of the perceived negatives of the system, it does work out in most towns, she said.
The town of Brewer, which is one town Waterville looked at in developing the proposed system, has seen about $200,000 in annual savings since the program started in 2011, according to Finance Director Karen Fussell. Like Waterville and other communities around the state, Brewer has faced a number of budgetary problems in recent years, including cuts to state revenue sharing, a decrease in the tax base and decrease in school funding. The motivation for looking for a new and more efficient system of solid waste disposal was one response.
“It was a significant change, asking residents to pay for these bags and also offering enhanced recycling benefits, being able to pick-up single stream and more than doubling the frequency of collection for recyclables,” said Fussell.
Eco Maine, the company that will process Waterville’s recyclables, does have some regulations on what can be recycled in single stream. Some of the few exceptions include plastic bags, batteries and light bulbs — items that Lefebvre says he does.
“We take everything — glass, metal, all the numbers on the plastic. Everything the other sites don’t take because they’re too picky,” said Lefebvre. He estimates the amount of recyclables his company will process will drop by over half when Waterville starts curbside recycling.
And unlike Brewer, which already had curbside recycling available when they started pay-as-you-throw, Waterville plans to offer residents two months of curbside recycling prior to the start of pay-as-you-throw, said Thomas.
Illegal dumping is the most commonly voiced concern over pay-as-you-throw, but in most towns the amount of illegal dumping hasn’t changed with the institution of the system, said Lakeman.
“The people who dump their trash on the side of the road are still going to do that. And it’s not a good argument to not have a law because you’re afraid someone is going to break it,” she said.
For low income residents who are concerned about the added cost of paying for city-certified trash bags — slated to cost $2 a piece — Thomas said the city is working on making them available for free or a lower rate for certain low-income residents.
“The discussion right now is that anyone who is receiving a housing voucher likely would also qualify for assistance in purchasing their bags if they truly can’t afford them,” he said. “We’ve also talked about anyone who is on general assistance being able to apply for help and making them available through the food banks.”
The council still needs to vote two more times on the budget, including the pay-as-you throw system. If it passes, curbside recycling would start in July and residents would start paying for trash bags in September.
It is possible the city would hold a referendum after the first year asking residents to approve making the system permanent.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 | [email protected]