With trash disposal in Maine towns, there’s probably a better option

Luisa S. Deprez, University of Southern Maine, and Ron Deprez, University of New England

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on January 5, 2016.

New York Times science writer John Tierney argues we have become recycling lemmings, unquestioning in our pursuit of disposing of the vast amount of waste we generate and ignorant of the overall costs and the damage being done to the environment. The controversy over the costs and effectiveness of recycling, both financially to citizens and communities and to the environment, festers nationwide and here at home in Maine.

The Public Health Research Institute, or PHRI, a Maine-based nonprofit health research firm, is conducting a policy options study for effective and equitable solid waste management and recycling in Maine. Municipal solid waste, or MSW, is a huge issue for towns across the state. And while there are many ways to address this issue that are cost-effective and promote responsible recycling, towns should understand all of the costs and benefits of whatever policies they implement.

Waste disposal is a public good that municipalities are required by Maine statute to provide to residents and businesses for health and safety reasons, similar to police and fire services. As a public good, PHRI believes programs to reduce MSW need to be equitable and fair to residents and industry.

The predominant approach to reducing municipal solid waste and promoting recycling in Maine are Pay as You Throw, or PAYT, programs, requiring residents to purchase bags to dispose of waste. Rarely, however, are the true costs of these programs revealed or are policy options considered that employ state-of-the-art technology, demonstrate better efficacy and are more equitable. In fact, in some Maine towns PAYT revenues subsidize other governmental operations.

Recently, PHRI conducted an analysis of the costs of the first year of Waterville’s PAYT program using data provided by the city. Preliminary results indicate the recycling program cost the residents of Waterville $212,000 more than they would have paid had they stayed with the existing trash pickup and recycling program; this excludes the administrative and vendor costs of running the program and the cost to residents from increased use of private trash collection.

First-year costs to residents for the PAYT program were estimated at $394,000. This includes the revenues from bags sold — estimated by the city at $322,000 — and additional costs of $72,000 ($6,000 monthly) to the city for trash and recycling pickup as required by the PAYT program. City officials claim the program reduced waste disposal fees by an estimated $182,000. The town used revenues from the program to offset its budget for the fiscal year 2014-2015.

Overall, PAYT-type programs such as those adopted in a number of Maine municipalities rarely are used in cities and towns across the country that boast better success in increasing recycling levels. An additional concern about these programs is their adverse affect on the poor, seniors and others less able to afford the price of the required bags. There also are indications that towns may soon be forced to pay more for recycling, as the market for recyclables has shrunk with an inevitable outcome being increased bag costs, which would further disadvantage residents of limited means.

PHRI will focus its white paper on policy options, including PAYT programs, that provide balanced responsibilities of government, citizens and industry in solid waste management. A specific objective is to examine the costs to citizens of solid waste management policies regardless of how they are paid for — be they taxes, bag fees, trash pickup fees and the like.

National studies on waste management demonstrate that the best approach to reducing waste, improving recycling and creating jobs is a comprehensive one, not the one-size-fits-all approach found among most Maine PAYT programs. Public education campaigns, a comprehensive plan for residential and commercial waste, strong source reduction policies (i.e. recycling mandates tied to financial incentives), and programs for food waste all need to be part of a fair and comprehensive approach to reducing and managing waste while promoting cost-effective recycling and ensuring equity among citizens and businesses.

Luisa S. Deprez is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-director of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Ron Deprez is president of the Public Health Research Institute based in Deer Isle and an associate research professor at the University of New England. He has 35 years of experience conducting policy studies for governments and foundations in Maine and across the nation.


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