Harpswell officials consider single-sort recycling program

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HARPSWELL — Town officials are considering changes that may boost the recycling rate.

But the cost benefit to taxpayers is uncertain.

Harpswell now recycles 47 percent of its total waste stream, well over Maine’s statewide recycling rate of 38.5 percent, according to State Planning Office statistics.

While the town’s rate is impressive, the way Harpswell recycles hasn’t changed since the 1970s, according to George MacDonald, waste management and recycling program manager at the State Planning Office.

According to MacDonald, Harpswell had one of the first drop-off recycling centers in Maine. Over the years, the range of what can be recycled has expanded, but the town facility is fundamentally the same: Residents sort through their own recyclables, dropping them into the appropriate chute. Then recycling center employees bale the recyclables and sell them.

That system has worked well for years, and aggressive education about recycling has helped boost the town’s recycling rate. But in the past four years, many towns have begun switching to single-sort recycling, where residents bundle all their recyclables together and the town sends the waste to a facility where it is sorted and sold.

Switching to single-sort has costs and benefits that Fred Cantu, recycling and transfer station manager, is weighing before the town seriously considers switching.

The benefits of single-sort include less hassle for residents, a greater range of what can be recycled, and a likely increase in the town’s recycling rate. Because the town would no longer be baling its own recyclables, it could get rid of balers and probably reduce staff at the transfer station.

Switching to single-sort would also mean giving up revenue from the sale of recyclables. In the past three years, the town averaged about $63,000 annually from the sale of recycled materials, according to the 2010 annual town report. According to MacDonald, some single-sort companies have revenue-sharing agreements with towns, which may allow Harpswell to recoup some of that lost income.

It’s hard to say how much Harpswell’s recycling rate would jump if the town switched to single-sort. The type of recycling program, and quantity and type of recycled materials, varies so much that it’s difficult to make comparisons with other towns that have already made the switch, MacDonald said.

Towns that experienced the greatest boost in recycling rates after switching to single-sort usually offered curbside pick-up and instituted a pay-per-bag program, where residents must buy town garbage bags.

Fewer communities with drop-off recycling centers have switched to single-sort, and there is only three years of data to draw on. But in MacDonald’s experience, he said there will likely be a single-digit increase in the recycling rate if Harpswell switches.

Based on his analysis, Cantu said he doesn’t recommend that the town switch to single-sort recycling.

“It would still cost the taxpayer extra money for what I feel is a minimal return in increased recycling,” he said.

But after seeing Cantu’s presentation to the selectman on Aug. 18, Selectman Jim Henderson isn’t completely convinced.

“Our Recycling Advisory Committee has not weighed in on this, and I’m still persisting,” he said. “I want to continue to see if I can be satisfied … that we should do what we’re doing and stick with it.”

Whatever happens, it’s important to be decisive, MacDonald said.

“Once you change a program system,” he said, “it’s very difficult to back up and adopt the former program.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter:@guerinemily.