Time to pay as we throw

By Lisa Bjerke and Erickson Smith

Approaching residential waste disposal like we approach public utilities may seem unusual at first, but it’s an effective – and proven – idea.

In Bar Harbor, a proposed pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program will be considered by the Town Council on April 19. Over the past 30 years, pay-as-you-throw has been implemented in more than 7,000 towns across the United States. One third of Maine residents pay as they throw.

The system makes sense and is fair since it treats solid waste as a utility, which is paid for according to usage, just like water or electricity. It’s a myth that our waste disposal is free: it consumes 3 to 5 percent of Bar Harbor’s property tax dollars. PAYT incentivizes waste reduction, recycling and composting. Through these three methods, residents and businesses can reduce the amount we spend on waste disposal.

Our garbage bags currently contain 21 percent recyclables and 38 percent compostables that we treat as waste and pay to dispose of, according to a 2011 University of Maine study. An upcoming transfer station upgrade can improve Bar Harbor’s recycling system, and now that the town has partnered with Fiberight, we’ll be able to recycle all types of plastics, not just No. 2. There also are an increasing number of options for material reuse and compost pick-up by Maine-based companies such as We-Compost-It or Agri-Cycle, which would further reduce our waste. Because of all these things, the timing for adopting PAYT couldn’t be better.

A proposed six-month winter trial period will allow Bar Harbor to test PAYT without overloading public works staff or businesses while giving residents the opportunity to see how it works before putting the system to a vote. The Maine town of Eliot had a similar trial period in 2013 before they approved their successful program. The trial period will allow us to figure out the best way for PAYT to work in Bar Harbor by fine-tuning the program, like Rockland did when the town improved its PAYT system with input from residents.

One concern about pay-as-you-throw is that it might encourage illegal dumping. However, no study or data show this has happened in Maine. A second concern about the trial is that the town would be “double-dipping” by collecting property taxes and bag/tipping fees. This will not happen, since any net revenue will be applied as a credit to the solid waste fund, lowering the cost for taxpayers the following year.

Over the last 50 years, the U.S. has doubled its waste production, resulting in high environmental and economic loss. Meanwhile, Bar Harbor’s and Maine’s recycling rates have stagnated in recent years. The Environmental Protection Agency describes PAYT as “the single most effective way to reduce residential solid waste, increase recycling and decrease waste-related greenhouse gas emissions.”

Bar Harbor can be a leader on the island in choosing the best economic and environmental solution: waste reduction is the most effective way to conserve finite resources and keep costs low. PAYT is an exciting opportunity to improve our solid waste management and join a growing trend of better resource management across the country.

Lisa Bjerke is College of the Atlantic’s discarded resources manager. Erickson Smith is historic records specialist at the Schoodic Institute.


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