The city of Auburn has one large problem, a $3.5 million budget deficit, which definitely qualifies as a crisis.
And it has another problem, smaller but a problem nonetheless: a household waste recycling program that is ignored by at least three-quarters of the city’s population and needs an injection of cash to update equipment.
This could be an opportunity to help solve both problems.
While City Manager Glenn Aho has found just over $1 million in budget cuts, as directed by the City Council, the city remains far short of making ends meet.
While more cutting may be possible, it is unlikely that the city will be able to close the gap without unacceptable cuts in services, like closing fire stations or cutting back on snow removal and salting.
That means it’s hard to see how either problem can be resolved without increasing revenue.
Obviously, that raises the specter of a tax increase.
Enter the opportunity for Auburn to follow the successful example of other Maine communities and adopt a pay-per-bag/single-stream garbage recycling program.
More than 150 communities in Maine, including Portland, have adopted pay-per-bag. Today, Portland residents discard 17 ounces of trash per day, compared to 32 in Lewiston and 33 in Auburn.
That means Portland residents produce about half as much personal trash as we do in L-A.
Other pay-per-bag communities include Bath, Brunswick, Cumberland, Falmouth and Topsham.
In all of those communities, the recycling rate is about twice that of Lewiston and Auburn.
The reason is simple. Even at 25 or 50 cents per bag, residents feel a financial incentive to pull recyclable material out of their garbage cans and put it in their recycling bins.
With single-stream recycling, costs go down and revenue from recycled material goes up, especially with more types of materials and plastics available for recycling.
The cost is less because a single truck picks up everything, eliminating the need for separate recycling trucks and personnel.
Revenue, meanwhile, goes up because more recycled material is collected for sale. The revenue can be used to help offset the cost of collection.
Currently, the only motivation Lewiston-Auburn residents have to recycle is the general satisfaction they get from doing the right thing ecologically. It would be nice if we could count on that alone to get the job done.
However, as the statistics have shown for years, it just doesn’t work. Depending upon neighborhood, our recycling rate is between 5 and 25 percent.
There are other advantages to a pay-per-bag system over a general tax increase.
First, it would have less of an effect on elderly homeowners who generally live alone or in small households without children. They produce less garbage, so they would pay less.
Second, it is something people can control. If you generate a lot of garbage and choose not to recycle, you pay more. If you are diligent about composting, bringing home less packaging on products and recycling, you can cut your waste stream to practically nothing.
While the revenue raised by a pay-per-bag system won’t be enough to totally offset Auburn’s budget shortfall, it clearly could be part of the solution.