Waterville’s overhaul of its municipal solid waste system requires resident users of the collection and disposal system to pay for each unit of waste by buying specially marked garbage bags.

This Pay-As-You-Throw system, common in Maine and throughout the country, is similar to how many pay for city sewer and water or electricity: People pay for what they use.

This is the first win for taxpayers, in that it is immensely fairer than the previous system that was unlimited disposal. Property taxpayers paid for everyone’s trash disposal out of their taxes, regardless of how much that household disposed. Taxpayers had no incentive to recycle, compost or reduce. A household that threw out 10 bags paid the same as a family throwing out one bag. Renters are even more removed from the reality of solid waste disposal costs in that they don’t even see a tax bill. Well, the City Council and management have embraced this new system that ensures fairness.

Win No. 2 is the addition of a new curbside mixed recycling collection. Part of the revenues from bag fees will go to offset the new service. Residents will have free, limitless recycling service as convenient as their trash pickup, further encouraging recycling. Families that formerly placed two or more trashcans out may repurpose one (or more) and turn them into recycling bins with a sign or free sticker. No more sorting, no more wasting gas to drive materials to a collection point. The proposed new recycling program is so easy that many residents are expected to take advantage of it and save money by reducing their trash.

Far-reaching community and environmental benefits is the only label that truly fits the third win. Towns and cities across the state have discovered these benefits during the past few decades when implementing PAYT, primarily shrinking their solid waste. Trash goes away. When residents are required to pay for each bag of trash, waste becomes a tangible expense, and many folks make an effort not to make it, waste it or even avoid collecting extra stuff they may not need.

Some of the disappearing trash came from out of town and should have never been here.


Reductions in air pollution from fuel savings by reducing trash and recycling transportation is also significant. Think of exchanging 1,000 cars, each driving an average of two miles to the recycling center, for one truck that drives 32 miles each collection day.

Additional benefits of reduced air pollution could extend to decreased burning at the solid waste incinerator. Municipalities have examined the value of increased landfill life because of reduced amounts of materials being buried.

Other positive impacts include drastically increased recycling capture and participation rate. Many more tons of our trash will be removed from the waste stream to be remanufactured into the goods we all consume, reducing the impact on new resource consumption. One great example of the magnitude of this benefit looks at recycling one aluminum can, which, when compared to extracting this material from mining, is like wasting as much energy as pouring out half of that can’s volume of gasoline.

One common argument against PAYT is that it represents a new tax. This is not accurate, in that it is not a tax, but a fee. The difference is subtle but immensely important. Yes, both are levied by city government, but this fee is based upon each person’s use of the system, and therefore, is much more equitable. Households can avoid much of this fee by recycling and reducing waste; property taxes, however, are inevitable.

Where does the extra funding go? It will be used to stop a tax rate increase and to pay for the much-needed recycling services. Waterville leadership was faced with a choice: Raise taxes and keep the municipal waste system the same or help keep taxes flat, start PAYT and cause a reduction in waste, an increase in recycling and to make the system fair. The choice was obvious.

Ross Nason is a planner at Kennebec Valley Council on Governments in Fairfield and chairman of the Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle team of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the people of central Maine. For more information, visit www.sustainmidmaine.org

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