BAR HARBOR — A plan to begin charging by the bag for trash disposal in 2016 was approved by town councilors by a 4-2 vote April 7.
The pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) plan, which exists in concept only at this time, is projected to reduce the town’s trash output by 44 percent, as more goods will be recycled and composted. That includes the projected diversion of approximately 2,600 tons of trash annually from the waste stream, waste reduction specialist Sarah Bernier told town councilors. The town currently disposes of 6,000 tons annually.
The trash system is a public utility, Bernier said, but because no costs are associated with its use, there is little incentive to recycle and compost waste.
“More and more, people are realizing that solid waste is one of those services that is unmetered, and people don’t think about it. It’s kind of what we call a broken trash system,” Bernier said.
Bernier’s company, Waste Zero, is a national, for-profit corporation with local offices throughout the country. They offer consulting, program design and management for towns interested in reducing their trash output and increasing recycling. Bernier’s presentation to the council came after councilor Gary Friedmann’s suggestion during budgeting discussions this winter that the town could significantly cut its $500,000 solid waste bill by going to a PAYT system. Bernier said during her presentation that general fund cost savings could amount to $200,000.
“There’s a lot of reasons for Bar Harbor to take the lead on green initiatives like this,” Friedmann said. “I think it fits our image as a tourist town where we value the environment, and it saves us money. I think what this does by putting the true cost on waste is encourages people to find new ways to recycle.”
Not all councilors were as excited about the prospect of instituting a new trash system. David Bowden questioned the idea that the move would save the town money, because, as he said, while it would save property tax dollars, it would cost residents in other ways.
“You’re not selling me this as a cost savings … it’s just a shift where you’re spending your money,” he said.
Bernier agreed that the plan would cause a cost shift, but said the result would be more equitable for residents.
“It’s not magic money that comes from nowhere,” she said. “But as you shift that cost, the residents are now paying for what they’re using, rather than paying for everybody as a whole,” she said. And residents would have the option of greatly increasing their recycling so as to lower their trash costs, she said.
Bowden and others also brought up the large number of lodging rooms and restaurants in town that would be impacted by the system. Currently, all users, whether they bring trash to the transfer station themselves or contract with a private hauler, throw away as much trash as they like. Commercial haulers do not pay a fee. Hotels, restaurants, non-profit institutions such as the Jackson Laboratory, and others would have to pay out of their own pockets. Haulers would pay based on weight and then bill commercial customers.
Local retailers would be expected to sell specially colored garbage bags to residents at their cost. Prices often range from $1 to $2 per bag. Only those bags could be used to dispose of trash.
Councilor Burt Barker came out strongly in favor of switching to a PAYT system.
“It seems to me this is the fairest thing that I’ve heard in a long time,” he said. “I think it’s something that we as a town should jump on as quickly as possible … I will go on record saying I’m all for doing it, and I think the sooner the better.”
Bowden said that he agreed with the assessment that encouraging more recycling would be good for the environment, but said there are too many factors outside of the town’s control to consider this shift now. One of those is the 2017 closing of Penobscot Energy Recovery Center (PERC) where the town and hundreds of other Eastern Maine communities bring their trash to have it burned and turned into electricity, he said.
Currently, the Municipal Resource Committee that represents the collective trash interests of the towns is exploring building a “trashahol” plant to replace PERC, where waste would be converted into liquid fuel. With PERC, the town has always had to supply a minimum amount of trash to meet PERC’s needs. Bowden said it may very well be the same way with the “trashahol” plant.
“I really think we need to find out … what this facility is going to require of us,” he said. “I don’t think we should be jumping on one thing real quick and finding out a year-and-a-half from now what we’re going to need for that facility.”
Friedmann countered that now is the perfect time to look at the town’s waste stream, before any decisions have been made by the MRC.
Councilors voted 6-2 to ask Town Manager Cornell Knight to implement a PAYT system starting with fiscal year 2017, which begins on July 1, 2016. Based on the council vote, Knight said he will consult with Waste Zero to determine the next steps in the process. Knight said that he envisions the projected implementation to be a council decision, not one that goes to town meeting. He said he would expect regular updates at town council meetings and a public hearing before the plan is implemented.