AUBURN — Three years ago, while municipalities were dealing with the more urgent threat of COVID-19, an ad hoc committee on recycling quietly released a detailed report featuring a series of recommendations on how to better the city’s struggling program.

The No. 1 recommendation was to invest in improved recycling infrastructure, like city-specific covered bins used by other large municipalities. The No. 2 suggestion was to conduct a broader education program to boost Auburn’s notoriously low participation rate — about 7% of households, according to the city — and the high “contamination” rate among the material collected.

After the City Council voted this week to eliminate the curbside recycling program, advocates for the program say neither of those recommendations occurred, and were hardly discussed prior to the decision to ax the program.

“Over the past six months we have asked Auburn administrators repeatedly for information on the performance of the program and for involvement in future planning as collaborators in the city’s sustainability efforts. We’ve had no response,” said Ralph Harder, who has been a member of the committee and the Sustainability Working Group. “So of course we were surprised and disappointed to read in the Sun Journal that the program will not be funded in the coming budget.”

Councilors, who voted unanimously Monday, said the city’s ability to incinerate material at Maine Waste to Energy, which produces electricity, is more cost effective and arguably more sustainable given the large amount of material collected that can’t be recycled and ends up in a landfill.

City Manager Phil Crowell said the city has been paying $144 a ton for recycling, which he said is “up drastically from where we were at the beginning of the year.” Councilor Leroy Walker said sending the same material to Maine Waste to Energy costs $42 per ton.


Crowell said cutting the program is a savings of $227,000, though the city will likely use the funds to shift to an automated trash collection system next year as required by the city’s trash collection contractor. According to city budgets, from 2020 through 2022, the recycling budget hovered at about $180,000.

The committee behind the report, which morphed into what is now known as the Sustainability Working Group, said cities with the highest rates of recycling, and lower costs, have recycling programs that are paired with other efforts to reduce overall solid waste, like “pay-as-you-throw” trash bags and composting programs that divert food waste.

Councilor Dana Staples, who was absent during the first reading on the budget this week, said he’s “disappointed that the council created a working group to help us decide what to do for the city’s recycling program, and then we didn’t use that working group to help make this decision.”

“I’m disappointed that the City Council funded a recycling program that hasn’t been working as intended, and we only hear about this during budget season,” he said. “I’m especially disappointed that the city has had such a low participation rate with our recycling program.”

Staples said he’s long taken advantage of the city’s recycling program, and that between recycling and the city’s composting program, his household usually only produces one small bag of trash each week.

The city currently contracts with a composting service, and has compost drop-off locations at the fire station in New Auburn and next to the Public Works sand/salt shed.



If the council ultimately approves its budget decision on recycling May 15, the last recycling collection will be in late June, said Public Services Director Dan Goyette. He said after that, people can bring recyclable materials to the collection bins outside Maine Waste to Energy, where it will be recycled if possible.

The former recycling committee’s report released in 2020, came after the council debated eliminating the recycling program in 2019 and the markets for recyclable materials turned volatile. Instead, the committee was formed to look at the program.

Among the biggest takeaways for the committee outlined in the report was that, “to efficiently maintain any recycling program and improve its environmental benefit, investment is necessary.”

The report said education programs are most effective for decreasing contamination rates “if the messages are reinforced over time and not just based on a one-time educational program.” When asked this week, Goyette said he believes a mailer was sent out to households within the last few years, but there has been no outreach lately.

Recycled No. 2 plastic is bailed and waiting for pickup at the Casella zero-sort facility in Lewiston in this Sun Journal file photo. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

The report also states that “other infrastructure improvements can also be used to increase participation, including weekly curbside pick-up, dedicated covered containers, and composting programs.” The city has offered bi-weekly pickup, and does not have covered containers, which can result in moisture contaminating some materials.


The report said between 15% and 18% of Auburn recycling is contaminated with food waste, non-recyclable materials or moisture, a rate that is on par with other big municipalities that have more than double the participation rate.

The low recycling participation rate in the city, 7.3% in 2019, also affects the average cost per ton for collection, the report said. With higher participation rates, the city could see lower average collection costs per ton.

“Improving recycling and pursuing other methods of reducing solid waste tonnage could reduce processing costs, reduce average recycling costs per ton, and improve the environmental outcomes of Auburn’s waste management system,” the report said.

When asked if the city has ever considered moving to a “pay-as-you-throw” model, where residents must buy designated city trash bags, Goyette said it has been discussed in the past at the manager’s level, but the City Council has had no appetite for it.

Without a similar model, there’s no incentive for residents to reduce the amount of waste placed curbside. According to the report, about 7% by weight of all curbside waste and recycling collected in Auburn is diverted from the solid waste stream. Better performing communities divert 40% to 50%, it said.

In Lewiston, the city struggles with low participation rates for recycling as well, but the cost of its program is part of a deal with Casella to house its facility in the city. Mary Ann Brenchick, director of Public Works, said roughly 60% of items that residents put in the trash could actually be recycled instead.


When asked this week, Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said he knows the issue is “emotionally charged.” He said he talks about the issue frequently with his wife, whom he calls an “avid recycler.”

He said the city was faced with the question of what method is the most environmentally friendly. He questions whether it’s more sustainable to send trucks to pick up frequently contaminated material that will likely end up in a landfill, versus burning material to create energy.

“It’s tough to be paying triple the cost of trash disposal to haul recyclables 120 miles to be landfilled,” he said, referring to the Juniper Hill landfill where Casella sends items that can’t be recycled.

Officials from Casella did not respond to questions before the Sun Journal’s print deadline regarding how much material is recycled.

Levesque said he expects there to be more discussion prior to the final reading on the budget.

“The council made a unanimous vote based on the info we had,” he said, adding that other waste-reduction models like “pay-as-you-throw” should be looked at.


Evan Cyr, a member of the Planning Board and Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission, waded into the debate recently on an Auburn community Facebook page. He said he’s in favor of utilizing Maine Waste to Energy “rather than the current recycling infrastructure.”

Cyr said one of the recycling program’s ultimate purposes is to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse emissions, but he argues that if more energy is consumed and more greenhouse gasses are emitted during the collection, sorting, landfilling and transporting of material, than the program “is actually worse for the environment than simply processing waste through (Maine Waste to Energy),” which he said has methods to limit emissions from its process.

Ralph Harder on the other hand, believes that if a recycling program is “properly run, its carbon footprint can be smaller than other methods of municipal solid waste disposal, including incineration in waste-to-energy plants.”


Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine program director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said this week that the dilemma facing Auburn is the very reason her organization advocated for the “EPR for packaging” law in 2021.

Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, is a model designed to shift some of the costs of disposing of packaging material from consumers to the large companies that produce it. While the Maine Legislature passed the law, it will likely not go into effect until 2026 or 2027, Nichols said.


“My first thought when I saw the news out of Auburn was, ‘This is why we needed EPR for packaging yesterday,’ ” she said.

Nichols said when the law goes into effect, towns will “not have to make these kinds of decisions anymore,” because the cost of recycling “will be covered by the people who make the packaging.” After Maine passed the law, similar legislation was approved in Colorado, Oregon and California. The model has already been proven in several other countries.

“I don’t blame the decision-makers for making that decision,” she said. “I feel badly they were put in that position.”

However, she said, there are mechanisms municipalities can use to boost recycling, like “pay-as-you-throw,” where revenue from the bags can be used to offset the cost of recycling.

When asked to weigh in on the environmental question of sending recyclable material to be incinerated, Nichols said the state’s “waste management hierarchy” is recycling, composting and then waste-to-energy, with landfilling at the bottom.

“We’re not looking to change the hierarchy, but I do think it’s debatable when you consider the emissions coming out of the waste-to-energy facilities,” she said, adding that their business model also “goes against waste reduction and recycling” because they rely on a certain amount of material to operate.

“If we’re actually successful in pulling more of that stuff out, that harms that business,” she said.

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