In a split vote last week, the Bar Harbor Town Council approved the development of a pay-to-throw system for solid waste disposal. The stated aim is to increase recycling and composting of food wastes. Homeowners will be required to purchase trash bags, usually at $2 each. No other bags will be able to enter the system. Commercial haulers will have to weigh the trash they collect and charge their customers accordingly.
Unfortunately, local solid waste disposal may be facing a total change of direction in just a few years. Abruptly introducing a totally new approach at this time seems premature.
For 25 years or more, the town of Bar Harbor has participated in a regional compact to truck trash, not otherwise recycled, to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company (PERC) plant on Route 15 in Orrington. There, trash from more then 100 Maine municipalities has been burned, and the resulting steam heat used to generate electricity.
PERC’s contract with Emera Maine (successor to the Bangor Hydro Electric Company) concludes in 2018.
Participating Eastern Maine communities are exploring various options, should the current financially attractive trash-to-energy facility no longer be available. One such option, for example, might be sending waste to a plant that would produce liquid fuel, sometimes known as trashahol. If practical, that would be an environmental triumph.
Meanwhile, the pay-to-throw system endorsed last week by a majority on the Bar Harbor Town Council has not proven universally popular here in Maine. Just last summer, residents in Rockland voted overwhelmingly to discard their ordinance. Such plans often lead to trash being thrown off remote dirt roads or people burning trash in their back yards to avoid the purchase of disposal bags or the fees involving weight.
With pay-to-throw, landlords can expect additional expense when tenants leave piles of trash behind. Hotels and restaurants will absorb significant additional expense in the handling and disposal of trash.
The proposed new system is estimated to generate up to $500,000 in revenue annually but the expenses involved have not been detailed. For a young family that generates four bags of trash a week, this amounts to a de facto tax increase of $416 per year, just for trash bags.
And the proposed scheme for selling the bags is counterintuitive. Local merchants are expected to front the money for the bags, and sell the bags to the public at cost, absorbing the costs of carrying the inventory, damage or pilferage. The cost of administering the program shifts to merchants and the public, leaving the bag seller as the only winner.
There is no urgent need to undertake a new and unproven system. Officials should schedule one or more public hearings, then put such a controversial proposal to a public vote.
There is not need to rush. PERC will be around for three more years. Waste disposal is too important and too personal a public service for a decision to be made without adequate public discussion and vote.