Chuck Berube drops off his recyclables Wednesday at the Auburn Public Works containers on Gracelawn Road in Auburn. Berube said he and his wife are avid recyclers. “I have always recycled. Always have.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

AUBURN — A city committee will conduct a comprehensive review of its solid waste and recycling programs over the next six months, which could lead to significant changes.

The process, approved by the council in January, comes after the previous City Council ended Auburn’s curbside recycling program last year. The decision resulted in months of debate over recycling, a beleaguered drop-off system and a new-look curbside program implemented late last year.

Mayor Jeff Harmon, taking office in December, campaigned on bringing back a more robust recycling program. He said this week that it was “unfortunate and a mistake” for the prior council to stop curbside pickup, and while pickup has restarted, he sees it as largely a “stopgap measure.”

“It’s not a well thought out, comprehensive solid waste plan,” he said, adding that the Sustainability and Natural Resources Board will be tasked to come up with recommendations for Auburn’s entire solid waste system, not just recycling.

The city’s new recycling program, rolled out in December, accepts certain plastics, cardboard and mixed paper, but does not accept glass and metals. Before the change was made, former Mayor Jason Levesque said negotiations with contractor Casella centered on what materials are being recycled and used in secondary markets.

When ending the recycling program in May, city officials argued that it is cheaper to send material to Maine Waste to Energy in Auburn for incineration than to pay for a curbside program, where some materials end up incinerated anyway.

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Harmon said that while he understands there are fluctuating markets for materials, he questions why most places in Maine still recycle metals and glass while Auburn doesn’t. He hopes the committee will take a look at those details.

“We’re recycling less materials than we were before,” he said, adding that now, Maine Waste to Energy is incinerating all the metal and glass from Auburn. “There’s been no real analysis of what the total life cycle cost of that is. I’m not saying trashing it isn’t the right answer, but we don’t know.”

Levesque said the metal is sorted by magnet after incineration and sent on.

The city’s agreement with Casella is for eight months at a cost of $153,512. Harmon said the plan is for the council to potentially act on the committee’s recommendations in time for the following budget season. The council voted unanimously to approve the committee process, which asks for recommendations by Aug. 19 of this year.

Councilor Steve Milks, who made the motion last term to end the previous recycling program, questioned in January why the city is conducting another committee process so soon after a previous analysis.

“The previous council asked them to do a plan. Now we’re asking them to do another one,” he said.

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Harmon responded that the previous plan is three years old and was focused on just recycling. The previous council did not implement many of the recommendations made in the previous report, but the new program does include a phone app and an educational campaign.

Milks said he hopes the new report will look at a “market analysis” and what is cost effective to recycle.

Harmon said he wants the committee to look at all the different methods municipalities use and find the ones with the “most efficiencies and least environmental impact.” Cities such as Portland use the “pay as you throw” method for solid waste, which requires residents to buy specific trash bags, but is shown to reduce the volume of solid waste produced by municipalities.

Most cities, including Lewiston, are also in the process of transitioning to an automated trash pickup system, where contractors such as Casella use trucks and bins that automatically lift trash and/or recycling into the truck. Auburn is also in talks to shift to the automated system.

Asked for data on how the new recycling program is going, City Manager Phil Crowell said he had not yet received the December figures from Casella.

Harmon said, “There’s been some implementation challenges” with the new program, but that Auburn’s goal is, “Even if it’s a stopgap, if we’re going to do this, we should do a good job. And by and large, it’s working.”

Crowell said that with any new program it’s had some challenges, including “glitches with routines” and sometimes missing a street. He said Casella has used a truck that is a dual hopper, where solid waste goes in the back and recycling in the front, which has led to questions from residents about whether their recycling is being mixed with solid waste. He said six weeks in, the calls have reduced.

“If we’re going to change this again, we need to put thought into this instead of just doing something quickly,” Harmon said.

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