The myth of free garbage service

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At first, it just seems like perplexing mystery: Why do Lewiston and Auburn families generate nearly twice as much garbage as those in Portland? It’s true, according to the state of Maine: Lewiston and Auburn residents dispose of about 740 pounds per person per year, while Portland residents produce a little more than 400 pounds per person.

But there’s no mystery here: Portland has a “pay-as-you-throw” system that encourages composting and recycling while Lewiston and Auburn do not.

Here, the cost of municipal waste pickup is buried within city budgets and paid by property taxes. The result is an unfair system that penalizes residents who are diligent about recycling and, as a result, produce less waste.

Portland adopted its pay-throw system in 1999 and the result was immediate, said Tom Miragliuolo, a state planner: Portland’s recycling rate quadrupled.

When recycling increases, municipal revenue from recycling goes up and landfill or incineration costs go down.

What’s more, the retired widow living at the end of the street who diligently recycles and produces less than a bag per week isn’t subsidizing the garbage disposal bill of the family of five who doesn’t bother to separate its trash.

As things now stand, garbage collection and disposal is perceived as a free service, with the costs borne by all taxpayers. As a result, there is no incentive for residents to recycle, compost or reduce their weekly waste.

A pay-throw system simply “connects residents’ disposal choices to their wallets,” according to an article in American City and County magazine. It dispels the myth that the amount of garbage we produce doesn’t matter.

In Portland, special bags are sold in grocery stores and other locations. Only residents using the special blue bags can have their garbage picked up by the city.

There are many variations on pay-throw collection — special containers, tags for bundles or stickers that can be applied to bags — but the colored bag system seems to be the best.

All of the pay-throw systems largely accomplish the same goals: To encourage homeowners to separate recyclables from household waste; to encourage the people who can to compost and to encourage the donations of some goods to charitable organizations.

There are now 6,000 communities on a pay-throw system in the U.S., and 140 of those are in Maine.

Pay-throw is clearly a fair option that Lewiston and Auburn should consider to help reduce property taxes.

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