South Portland considers penalties for mixing trash, recyclables

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents who mix trash with recyclables may face penalties of up to $500 or loss of access to curbside recycling.

The city is considering the punitive measures because truckloads of recyclables from the Redbank neighborhood are deemed contaminated each week when they reach the ecomaine waste management center in Portland.

One “dirty” household recycling bin can mean a whole truckload of otherwise clean recyclables will be sent to ecomaine’s trash incinerator. That’s a problem because recyclables sent to ecomaine cost the city nothing, while every ton of trash costs $88.

City Manager Jim Gailey said that since March 2011, the city has taken a $45,000 hit – all because some residents can’t seem to keep dirty diapers, food scraps, yard clippings and other nonrecyclables out of their blue bins.

“A handful of people are contaminating the good everyone else is trying to achieve,” he said during a City Council workshop on Monday.

Gailey said that before last March the city never had a load of recycling rejected.

According to figures on ecomaine’s website, South Portland increased the amount of waste recycled from 19 percent to 28 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2011. It reduced garbage output from about 7,800 tons to about 6,200 tons in the same period.

But after the first load of recycling was rejected last spring, the city’s performance took a nosedive. It ended 2011 having sent 61 more tons of trash to the incinerator than in 2010.

One proposal for reversing the trend is to fine property owners $250 to $500 per contaminated ton of recycling. Another is to take away recycling bins from problem residents.

Councilors Rosemarie De Angelis and Tom Coward and Mayor Patti Smith said they support the fines, but draw the line at preventing residents from recycling. They said the problem is one of education, and that taking away recycling bins amounts to giving up on those residents.

“I’m not saying we need to employ the environmental police here, but we need a multi-tiered approach,” Smith said. “We need to keep doing education, rather than saying we’re giving up the fight and taking away the bin.”

Councilor Tom Blake was also skeptical about fines. He said they would punish landlords rather than the tenants who are causing the problems. 

The ordinance proposal includes language to require landlords to educate their tenants about proper recycling practices, but Blake, who is a landlord, said it wouldn’t matter.

“There are a lot of people who are ignorant and just don’t care,” he said. “I probably make at least $5 a month taking back the bottles I pull out of my tenants’ trash.”

Gailey said removing the bins is the best way to stop the contamination of clean recyclables. 

He said that while education efforts are good, those methods have been exhausted. For nearly a year, city officials have met with offenders, inspected bins, notified landlords and handed out educational material. 

But nothing has convinced the problem residents to sort their trash.

“Not everyone is going to recycle,” Gailey said. “If you take out the (ability to take away recycling bins), you’re taking the legs out of this ordinance.”

At least four councilors will have to come to an agreement about penalties by the time the ordinance comes before the City Council for official consideration next month.

The only wide agreement found Monday was that whatever action the city takes is not an indictment on its commitment to recycling.

“We want this program to be successful,” Public Works Director Tim Gato said. “We just need a way to stop the bleeding in this one case.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Recycling vs. waste

Here’s how South Portland stacked up against other municipalities in fiscal year 2011, measured in tons recycled and percentage recycling from all waste, according to ecomaine’s website:

• North Yarmouth: 524 tons, or 48 percent.

Falmouth: 1,754 tons, 47 percent.

Portland: 5,358 tons, 35 percent.

Scarborough: 2,733 tons, 34 percent.

Cumberland: 825 tons, 34 percent.

Cape Elizabeth: 1,262 tons, 33 percent.

South Portland: 2,461 tons, 28 percent.

Freeport: 554 tons, 25 percent.