South Portland residents will go green or pay green

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a policy that would allow the city to charge property owners $100-$500 for mixing trash with recyclables.

Under certain situations, the city could also take away its blue recycling bins from residents who fail to separate their trash.

Councilor Tom Blake opposed the measure, which passed 6-1.

The ordinance amendment faces one more procedural vote, but barring a major shift in attitude, it is expected to become law. 

For the past year, city officials say, contaminated recycling bins from the Redbank neighborhood have sullied otherwise clean loads of recycling. When those loads arrive at ecomaine, the region’s waste management center in Portland, they are diverted away from the $3.4 million single-sort recycling machine and sent to the 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. Before last spring, the city had never had a load rejected, he said.

Gailey said the fines have become necessary after a year of education, trash screening and conversations with property owners and tenants did nothing to stop the contamination.

“It’s discouraging because we can’t really solve it at this point,” he said. “We’ve had a mission of increasing recycling every year. This has really set us back a step.”

Blake said he doesn’t think South Portland needs more rules and fines. A strong, continuous program aimed at teaching proper recycling techniques could eventually solve the problem, he said.

In a previous meeting, Blake – a landlord – also took issue with the proposal targeting property owners rather than the tenants actually responsible for blue-bin contamination.

“Fines are for criminals. Our residents and our property owners are not criminals,” he said. 

Other councilors supported the idea of more education, but said the city needs to do something now to address the losses coming from Redbank – so far the only neighborhood to have entire loads rejected at ecomaine.

In an initial meeting about the policy held last week, several councilors said they wouldn’t support a measure in the ordinance amendment that would allow the city to take blue bins away from problem residents. Taking away someone’s access to recycling is contrary to the city’s goals, they said.

But this week, only Blake said the measure would violate the spirit of the city’s efforts. 

Councilor Tom Coward said while removing blue bins may lock out some residents, it will actually increase the city’s recycling total because the problem residents won’t be able to ruin everyone else’s efforts.

Gailey took the same approach, telling councilors the city would save money by allowing violators to only fill one bin with trash.

“At this point … each property is getting two 65-gallon barrels of solid waste because everything is getting incinerated,” he said. “We’d actually reduce our solid waste costs by half over in that district, because not a single load hasn’t been rejected in a year.”

In other City Council business Wednesday:

• Gailey said city staff are working to address business concerns about plans to remove angled parking from Ocean Street. One plan would make Ocean Street from A Street to D Street one way northbound, allowing angled parking on one side of the street and parallel parking on the other. Another would make all of Ocean Street north of the Legion Square traffic circle one way.

The city is waiting to hear a response from area merchants and the Knightville-Mill Creek Neighborhood Association before bringing a plan to councilors.

• The city transferred more than $95,000 from a wage reserves account to the general fund to pay for police and fire department wage increases negotiated in the current fiscal year. The money was put in the reserve account during the budget planning process because the city knew several civil service contracts would expire.

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