AUBURN — The city has been quietly testing single-stream recycling for the past several weeks, picking up the sorted bins curbside and emptying them into a single hopper on the city's truck.
"For the recycling homeowner, there was no change," Public Works Director Bob Belz said. "We've been using it as an opportunity to see what efficiencies we could realize by going one way or the other. But it's not a permanent change, until councilors say so."
Belz said the city actually had little choice but to make the change.
Auburn has contracted with Lewiston to take its sorted recycling for several years. Auburn's trucks would take its sorted paper, plastic, metal and glass to Lewiston's landfill, where it would join other piles of sorted recycling. That material was sold on the recycling commodities market, and Lewiston shared those revenues — minus some administrative costs — with Auburn.
Auburn has a woeful recycling rate. The city's recycled 3,418 tons compared to 22,162 tons of municipal solid waste for a recycling rate of 15.42 percent.
For comparison, Pownal had the best recycling rate in southern Maine, recycling 47 percent of total waste.
But that deal ended in July, when Lewiston formally switched to single-stream recycling. Belz said Auburn worked out a short-term deal with Lewiston to take Auburn's recyclables until the city settles on a permanent decision.
"Where our material was going, it was all unsorted," Belz said. "So, we decided to take the baffles out of the truck and go single stream."
Belz said he's recommending Auburn follow Lewiston's lead and make the single-stream change permanent.
"Our marching orders have been to provide the best value for the city," Belz said. "That's what we think this does."
Belz said Auburn took in $56,466 in revenue in recycling sales last year from its shared program with Lewiston.
The city received several bids from contractors who would manage Auburn's recycling program. The best bid came from Almighty Waste, which offered the city $29,995 in revenues.
But Belz said he's seen savings in labor and benefits, fuel and truck maintenance since the city stopped curbside sorting. He estimates those savings would add up to $42,870 per year.
"We normally have two trucks out doing the routes," Belz said. "But since we began testing single sort, the driver has to spend less time at each stop. We've been able to easily finish all of our routes each day with one truck."
Belz said he never publicized the change because he didn't want Auburn residents to get used to it.
"It doesn't make sense for them to change if we end up going back to curbside sorting, and that's a very real possibility," Belz said.
Ed Desgrosseilliers, of 121 Hatch Road, said the unpublicized change upset him.
Desgrosseilliers, vice chairman of the city's recycling and solid waste committee, told councilors Monday night that the group's work was never given a fair hearing by city staff and was never brought before city councilors.
"I didn't know anything about it, and I put my recycling out, carefully sorted into bins, and the guy just threw them all in the truck," Desgrosseilliers said. "I would've liked to strangle the guy. Apparently, it doesn't matter what a citizens committee recommends. The staff is just going to do what it wants."
Councilors are scheduled to discuss the fate of the recycling program at their Aug. 15 workshop, and said they wanted to hear from Desgrosseilliers and the rest of the recycling committee.