Charging for Trash: Pay-per-bag may be losing its appeal

(from Maine Townsman, July 2006)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Charging user fees for residential trash disposal — a common municipal response to soaring disposal costs in a property-tax-limitation era — is losing some of its appeal.

At least six Maine communities have rejected such programs since March. The midcoast city of Rockland, and the York County towns of Waterboro and Lyman repealed pay-per-bag programs already on the books. Proposed programs have also been rejected by Solon, in Somerset County, Sanford in York County, and Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. On the other hand, Gorham is a recent convert to pay-per-bag and Brunswick and Bath are actively considering starting a pay-per-bag program.

Pay-per-bag is a name for a system in which residents are required to purchase in advance color-coded trash bags or tags in order have their trash picked up at the curbside or accepted at the transfer station. Such programs aim to save tax dollars in three different ways. The up-front bag fee (of $1 to $3 per bag) generates a brand new revenue stream amounting to tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Up-front fees also induce more people to recycle their newspapers, cardboard, glass and plastic, creating saleable commodities that allow communities to lower property taxes and bring additional cash to municipal treasuries. Lastly, the resulting drop in overall trash volumes saves additional money in lower annual tipping fees at regional incinerators. Pay-per-bag programs caught on the in the mid-1990s and have since spread to about 140 Maine communities — a quarter of all communities. But the down sides of pay-per-bag — the inconvenience, unrealized tax savings, and the anecdotal diversion of household trash to bootleg disposal sites — are starting to get more attention.

Hank Tyler of Maine’s Waste Management & Recycling Program said he’s seen a cooling of enthusiasm for pay-per-bag. Few communities have adopted programs in recent years, which contrasts to the flurry of interest in the late 1990s. But, says Tyler: “backlash is too strong of a word.”

“A couple of towns have repealed it which has been big news. But others have started it. Brunswick is actively considering it. They’ve had a number of successful presentations and the council could adopt it next month.”

The cooling of interest in pay-per-bag is surprising because implementation of LD 1, with its property tax limitation system, was expected to spawn renewed interest in user fee programs generally. But there’s no widespread renewal of interest in pay-per-bag, even though it generates huge revenue from fees, according to Tyler. “I haven’t heard of any stampede as a result of LD 1,” he said. Voters in Rockland and Waterboro even had to take affirmative votes to override LD 1 tax limits in order to repeal their pay-per-bag programs and they did.


Invariably, the impetus for starting pay-per-bag programs is the growing cost of getting rid of trash. Local property taxpayers in Maine collectively raise $100 million a year on trash disposal, says Tyler. (Exact figures are difficult to derive because of differences in accounting systems, he said.) Pay-per-bag promises an escape from having to keep asking taxpayers for more and more. “If you’re a money manager and suddenly half your money is coming in from a whole new revenue source, it gets your attention,” said Tyler.

The trash-economics education of Waterboro well driller David Woodsome began with his attendance at a town meeting four years ago at which time the town raised $398,000 for bare-bones trash disposal program. “I was shocked,” Woodsome recalled. “I thought, ‘how in hell does trash cost so much?’”

A rural community, Waterboro provides no curbside collection. The money goes to staffing a transfer station, where the town’s residents and businesses bring trash, hauling from the transfer station to the Regional Waste Systems (RWS) incinerator in Portland, and tipping fees at RWS. In the four years since Woodsome has been involved in trash policy, Waterboro’s costs have climbed to $692,000 and he expects the costs will exceed $1 million in a few years. This for a community of 6,200. “Costs are just going crazy,” said Woodsome, who chaired a trash advisory committee.

Waterboro selectmen went ahead with a pay-per-bag program last year, knowing it would not be immediately popular. Voters had twice in recent years taken advisory votes against pay-per-bag and also had defeated investing $400,000 to build a drive-through recycling center. Selectmen believed pay-per-bag provided the only relief for taxpayers, said Woodsome. Plus, it was viewed as fairer to charge residents according to how much trash they generated — like household electricity usage — than charge everyone the same amount through taxes.

Under Waterboro’s system, the only trash accepted at the transfer station had to be in yellow plastic bags bought from the town ($1.75 for a 40-gallon bag and $1.25 for a 15-gallon bag). Faced with those fees, more people started recycling more and trash volumes dropped dramatically. The town’s recycling rate shot up from 8-13 percent to 27-43 percent saving the town tipping fees, and selling the plastic bags earned the town a tidy $3,000 of income a month. Instead of a truck dumping trash at RWS every other day, it would only have to go once a week. “Reduce tonnage, that’s the only way you can save money,” said Woodsome. With pay-per-bag revenue, town officials claim the tax cost of trash was reduced from more than a half million dollars to about $185,000.

“We saved money, reduced trash flow, increased recycling,” said Woodsome.

But something else was going on in Waterboro that wasn’t anticipated.

Faced with the hassle and cost of buying bags, some folks stopped bringing their trash to the transfer station altogether. Where the trash ended up is subject to debate and speculation: some of it was illegally dumped in the woods, some was thrown in dumpsters at out-of-town places of employment, and some of it was burned in backyard fires.

“A lot of elderly people couldn’t afford the extra money,” said Evan Grover, one of the leaders of a successful repeal movement. Fueling the non-participation was anger at selectmen for imposing a program that voters had twice rejected. “There’s so much defiance,” he said.

Altogether, some 10 to 15 tons of trash went unaccounted for each month — perhaps as much as 20 percent of the trash going to RWS, according to transfer station manager Clint Andrews.

More significant than the unaccounted trash was the trash redirected to private haulers. D & E Rubbish — the largest private hauler in Waterboro — picked up 50-75 new customers as a direct result of pay-per-bag, said owner Dean Waterhouse.

He faulted the town for having an inconvenient set-up at the transfer station. “Waterboro had a lousy set-up. You had to get out of your car three times (to drop of trash and recyclables). It wasn’t all lined up,” he said. Waterhouse picked up new customers even though he had to raise his rates from $21 per month to $33 per month to cover the new trucking costs imposed on him by pay-per-bag. (Waterhouse began trucking directly to RWS, a less expensive option than paying the per-bag fee to continue dumping at the transfer station.)

Though Woodsome and Grover are on opposite sides of the pay-per-bag issue, they share a view that tinkering with Waterboro’s program wouldn’t have made a difference. “I don’t think we could have pulled pay-per-bag through in any way, shape or manner, unless we had charged 25 cents or some ridiculous amount for the bags, which would have defeated the purpose,” said Woodsome. Says Grover, “Personally I think it’s a flawed system.”


The exodus to private rubbish collection is an unintended consequence of pay-per-bag. It seems to happens everywhere pay-per-bag has been adopted.

Private rubbish hauler Mark Wright of Harrington got into the residential trash collection business about four years ago when the six-town Pleasant River Solid Waste Disposal District started a pay-per-bag program. Wright now has 700 customers though not all of them are residents of the six-town district.

“I picked up a tremendous amount of residential requests,” said Wright. “That was a direct result of the local pay-per-bag system. Basically, what they did is create an opportunity for companies like myself to start offering competitive service.”

The $44.75 per month that Wright charges to rent a two-yard dumpster starts to look attractive to rural residents who might spend 45 minutes on a weekly round trip to a centralized transfer station that is open only two days a week, says Wright. “You don’t make it on Wednesday and it’s raining on Saturday, what do you do?” asks Wright.

Private trash hauler Bill Chute who serves the communities of Casco, Naples and Otisfield is considering expanding his business into Windham because of complaints he has heard about Windham’s pay-per-bag program.

“I would say there’s widespread discontent,” said Chute. “It’s the reason I’m keeping my eye on it. They hate it, having to buy bags.”

“I know it’s costing them, and the hassle to get bags,” he said. “Even big bags aren’t big enough. One person I know spends $25 a week on bags. Holy cow. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a good story.”

The diversion of trash to private collection puts a credibility knock on the dramatic numbers posted by pay-per-bag. As Tyler points out, trash that is picked up by private haulers disappears from municipal accounting systems. It lowers municipal costs and improves the municipal recycling rate even with no improvement in actual recycling, he says. Because of this phenomenon, it’s difficult to take municipal trash numbers at face value. Gorham and Windham — both pay-per-bag towns — for example generate a third less trash per person than the state average. How much of that is due to diversion to private collection, Tyler wonders? He suspects the cumulative effect makes overall state figures misleading. “Generally, the result is an inflated recycling rate, it is up because not all the trash is counted,” he said.

An analysis of pay-per-bag programs back in their infancy discounted “waste diversion” as a significant phenomenon, but the authors of the report may have been looking in the wrong places. The 1995 study by the Margaret Chase Smith Center confirmed the conventional wisdom about pay-per-bag: municipalities with pay-per-bag generate less than half as much trash as those with conventional trash disposal (380 pounds per person versus 860 pounds per person). The report also found that overall costs were also lower in pay-per-bag communities ($87 versus $115 per person per year.) Acknowledging a down side to pay-per-bag, the report found an increase in backyard burning and roadside dumping in pay-per-bag communities, but the report found little evidence of diversion to “neighboring communities.” Curiously, the report made no mention of diversion to private trash collection.


Booking the revenue for pay-per-bag without delivering tangible tax savings is a risky way to proceed. Waterboro taxpayers, according to the opponents of pay-per-bag, saw no direct tax relief during the 11 months that the program was in effect.

Unrealized tax savings was also a significant factor in Rockland voters’ repeal in June of the pay-per-bag program adopt by the city council in March, according to City Manager Tom Hall, who accepts blame. One mistake, he said, was budgeting all the proposed savings into upgrading the town’s chronically under-funded transfer station and landfill. “I erred on too much, too soon,” he said. “They wanted to see some property tax relief.” Another factor in Rockland’s defeat of pay-per-bag was a tradition of egalitarianism at the transfer station, he said. “People felt the dump, as it’s affectionately called, should be open and free for all and funded through taxes like police and fire,” Hall said.

For Rockland, the next step is seriously enforcing the city’s mandatory recycling ordinance, which “will be interesting,” Hall said. Past attempts to enforce the ordinance by opening residents’ trash bags at the transfer station met with outcries, he said. While Hall said he doubts enforcing the ordinance will yield more than a few percentage point gains in the recycling rate, the failure to enforce it was used against city officials backing pay-per-bag, he said.


There are some pay-per-bag success stories. Falmouth inaugurated its program in 1992 with an aggressive education campaign involving the schools and a Lion’s Club. From 1993 to 2003, Falmouth’s municipal recycling tonnage increased each year, from 386 in 1993 to more than 1,100 in 2003. During that period, the town’s recycling rate peaked at an improbable 80.1 percent in 1999, according to the Maine State Planning Office. The town was singled out as a pay-per-bag success story by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Word spread down the coast to Camden and three other communities comprising the Midcoast Solid Waste Corp. The communities studied Falmouth’s program and adopted their own in 2002 — in a matter of months and with little controversy.

“I believe in it, it saves our taxpayers money,” said Rockport Town Manager Bob Peabody.

The Midcoast Solid Waste Corp yokes together the affluent tourist communities of Rockport and Camden with the more working class communities of Hope and Lincolnville.

One of the keys to success is a concerted education campaign, Peabody said. In addition to the usual slate of hearings and printed literature, officials put together a documentary that aired on public access cable. “We showed cost savings to individual taxpayers,” he said. In Rockport, the program generates more than $200,000 in offsetting revenue to supplement $211,000 raised by taxes, he said.

Peabody dismissed the alleged inconvenience of pay-per-bag (“You have to buy bags anyway,” he said) and also dismissed stories about illegal dumping. “Most citizens do not become litterers because of the $1 bag per week, he said.

Brunswick has heard the pros and cons about pay-per-bag and is proceeding cautiously toward adoption of a program, according to Craig Worth in the public works department. The biggest factor in Brunswick’s deliberations is extending the life of Brunswick’s municipally owned landfill, according to Worth.

Banning commercial trash extended the projected life from two more years to 16 more years and pay-per-bag could extend the life of the landfill to 25 more years, he said. “The longer we can keep it open, the better deal it is,” he said. He said he’s impressed with the “tremendous drop in tonnage” that other pay-per-bag communities have shown. He thinks the program could double the town’s recycling rate to “40 percent.” Worth acknowledges down sides to pay-per-bag but doesn’t think they will be a big factor.


Communities undecided or ambivalent about trash policy might consider a third way pioneered by Saco — automating its curbside trash collection program. Every household is given free three color-coded wheeled trash carts — green for rubbish, brown and blue for recyclables - which are picked up at curbside by a trash truck with an automated arm. If a household generates more trash than fits in the green cart, they can make more room by putting recyclable materials in the brown and blue carts. “You have to make it easy for people to recycle,” said Eric Cote, Saco city councilor. “We’re now recycling 18,000 tons a year and we used to do half of that.”

The system is easy to use and requires no “bag-selling” administrative apparatus, he said. The lidded trash carts keep streets cleaner than plastic garbage bags.

While the wheeled, lidded carts cost the city $60,000, the payback comes in huge labor savings, he said.

“One truck driver picks up 6,000 households in forty hours a week. We used to have two trucks and five guys,” he said.

Saco modeled its program after one in Goffstown, New Hampshire. South Portland and Scarborough are following suit, says Cote. It’s also under consideration in Sanford.

“A lot of cities in other states are doing it; it’s slow coming to Maine,” said Cote. “We’ve had it for three years. People like it,” he said.