Portland has a recycling problem, and it’s not a lack of enthusiasm among city dwellers.

For years, Travis Wagner has looked at the overflowing recycling bins placed curbside and wondered: How many recyclables get tossed in the trash instead because residents can’t cram any more into the city-issued bins? And how much litter do those lidless recycling bins contribute to Portland’s streets and sewers?

So Wagner, a University of Southern Maine professor with an academic interest in waste issues, enlisted a few non-squeamish helpers to find out.

Over seven weeks last summer, Wagner and his crew drove the streets of two Portland neighborhoods ahead of the trash trucks first to document the scene, and then again afterward to look for recyclable litter.

And they found plenty of it: 20,950 pieces of litter for every 1,000 households, or the equivalent of 3.74 tons of litter annually for every 1,000 households.

The results surprised even Wagner, who hopes his study could help persuade city officials to switch to larger, closed-top recycling bins.

“It’s one thing if you just drive by and observe (litter), but it’s another thing if you walk the route,” said Wagner, a professor at USM’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy and affiliated faculty at the Muskie School of Public Service. “And then what would happen is, as the winds picked up, they would blow that litter around. But it has to go somewhere, whether in another person’s backyard, into the bushes or into a storm drain.”

Troy Moon, sustainability coordinator at Portland City Hall, said the issues raised by Wagner’s study could be addressed in a forthcoming list of recommended changes to the city’s trash and recycling management systems.

“I think the results of the study confirmed what we knew anecdotally, that people like recycling in Portland and they recycle a lot,” Moon said. “So we do have very full recycling bins and they do put out additional bins.”

LITTER-PREVENTION RECOMMENDATIONS

Recycling-related litter is nothing new in Portland or in any other towns that use lidless recycling containers. Crows, squirrels and other scavenging critters contribute to the problem by either picking through recycling bins or, more frequently, tearing through plastic trash bags in search of something tasty.

Litter tied to overflowing or unlidded recycling containers came up during the Portland City Council’s debates two years ago over whether to impose a 5-cent fee on disposable shopping bags and to ban most retailers from using polystyrene food and beverage containers. Opponents of the measures said a better way to reduce litter would be to put lids on recycling bins.

Wagner and his study co-author, Nathan Broaddus of the Muskie School, focused on Portland’s East End and in the Capisic area in order to capture a more densely populated, urban streetscape and a more suburban, residential setting. Their work, published earlier this year in the academic journal Waste Management, recommends that communities replace smaller, open-top collection bins with larger, enclosed bins while also taking steps during the collection process to prevent the dispersal of litter.

To add heft to their findings, the authors tried to calculate the economic costs of recycling-related litter based on the amount of litter their team found during its weekly post-trash collection surveys of the neighborhoods. They estimated that cleaning up the litter would cost the city between $55,515 and $257,980 annually, depending on labor rates and other factors. But those figures do not include costs associated with flooding events caused by litter-clogged storm drains or with damage to the marine ecosystem.

“This study shows that, given the source of litter, it is more cost-effective to prevent or reduce the generation of litter than to constantly engage in litter cleanup efforts, which should be done through a careful assessment when selecting the appropriate size and type of recycling container for curbside collection,” reads the journal paper.

The City Council’s solid-waste task force, on which Wagner served, discussed the possibility of larger containers. And City Hall staff members are currently working on a list of potential recommended changes to Portland’s waste stream management, potentially including the recycling program and disposal of food wastes and organic materials, Moon said. Those recommendations have not been finalized, but he expects them to be unveiled later this year.

Moon worked with Wagner to focus his study, although the project was financed through a USM-administered grant rather than through the city.

“I think that is something that we recognize . . . and we are trying to come up with a solution,” Moon said of the overflowing bins. “I think we are close.”

Switch to lidded ‘carts’ could be costly

The type of 18-gallon, lidless recycling bins has been in use almost since Portland began curbside recycling in 1999. The first bin is free for new city residents, but additional bins cost $10 each. The city switched to “single-stream” recycling – in which residents commingle recyclables into a single container – in 2007, and the pay-as-you-throw garbage bag system is aimed at encouraging residents to reduce the amount of trash they send to the landfill.

In the households surveyed during Wagner’s study, 26 percent used additional containers – whether official bins or laundry baskets – to accommodate all of their recyclables. On average, 15 percent of the bins were overflowing each week.

Switching to the type of larger, lidded and often wheeled containers, or “carts,” used in other communities would be costly. A 64-gallon cart with a lid costs municipalities roughly $50 each, compared with $10 for every 18-gallon bin.

Wagner said he is convinced, based on his work and other studies, that switching to larger containers will both encourage higher recycling rates and reduce the amount of litter in the city. He said there are grants available to help municipalities make the change.

But one other thing that stuck out from his study is the number of times people thanked him or other participants for picking up litter on the streets.

“People like litter control, for all sorts of reasons,” Wagner said. “I didn’t realize this was as significant a source of litter as it was . . . and hopefully this will help other communities monetize that.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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Twitter: KevinMillerPPH