SANFORD – Sanford is known for its summer collegiate baseball league team and its hundreds of square feet of available mill space.

But the town was never particularly distinguished when it came to recycling.

For years, the recycling rate languished in the single digits with only about one-fifth of households bothering to separate their cans and newspapers from the rest of their trash.

This summer, that has changed dramatically.

Seven weeks after switching to a pay-per-bag trash system, the town’s recycling rate has jumped from 7.5 percent to 41 percent, one of the highest rates in the state. The amount of trash it was delivering to the incinerator has dropped to an average 63 tons per week during the first six weeks of the new system, compared to an average 155 tons per week during the same period last year.

At that rate, Sanford could save up to $275,000 in trash disposal fees this year.

“Basically, thus far, it has proved to be a huge success,” said Eugene Alley, sanitation director in Sanford.

Sanford is the latest town to adopt a pay-as-you-go waste disposable system to boost the town’s recycling rate and save money at the incinerator. Cape Elizabeth, which recycles at a 31 percent rate, is looking at whether to switch to a pay-per-bag system.

A pay-per-bag system is one of the most effective ways to entice residents to separate the recyclables from their trash, but not always the most popular. It is just one of the steps Maine communities are taking to get more households to recycle.

Recycling in Maine stalled during the past decade after peaking at a 42 percent statewide rate in 1997, one of the highest rates in the nation. By 2006, the rate had fallen to 36 percent. George MacDonald, director of the state’s waste management and recycling program, said although the actual tonnage of recycled materials stayed the same, people were throwing out more.

Since then, the recycling rate has crept back up to just under 39 percent in 2008, the latest year available. While some of the increase is due to the economic recession — people are buying and throwing out less — it is also due to renewed efforts to get people to recycle, MacDonald said.

“Towns are doing more as they see it as a way to reduce their costs in managing solid waste,” MacDonald said.

Recycling experts have studied why some communities recycle at higher rates than others. Among the 21 communities that are part of ecomaine, a waste disposal and recycling cooperative in southern Maine, North Yarmouth residents recycle 48 percent of their waste compared to Limington, which recycles only 6.4 percent of its trash.

Nicholas Miller, a summer intern for the state’s waste management and recycling program, looked at demographic factors and municipal recycling policies. He concluded that accepting a large number of recyclable materials is the most important factor, followed by household income and education.

Ecomaine communities found making the switch from a system in which recyclables must be sorted to a single-stream system, where householders may throw everything into one bin, increases participation. Recycling rates in its member communities rose by 20 percent when the organization made the switch in 2007, said Missi Labbe, program development manager.

She said ecomaine communities that have mandatory recycling ordinances, curbside recycling and pay-per-bag recycle at a 41 percent rate, compared to 17 percent in communities that don’t offer any of those incentives.

Education is not especially effective, say some solid waste experts. A yearlong education campaign to get Sanford residents to increase their recycling went nowhere.

“It didn’t produce the results that we wanted or needed,” Alley said.

The South Portland Energy and Recycling Committee is now trying to boost rates through public education. For the first time, it sent out a flier with property tax bills this summer. The flier points out that every 1 percent increase in recycling saves the city $6,000 a year. The flier urges residents to think of their blue recycling bin as their friend and the green trash bin as their enemy.

“We are trying to keep it voluntary,” said Stanley Cox, a longtime recycling committee member.

Other communities resort to more coercive tactics. A cluster of towns in central Maine requires residents to bag their trash in clear plastic to make sure they are not mixing their trash with recyclables.

Bill Nichols, public works foreman for Livermore Falls, said his town has required clear bags for a decade.

“If people bring black bags, we make them open them up and paw through them. Once they do that, they decide it is just as easy to put it into the clear bags,” Nichols said.

Still, the recycling rate has hovered at 24 percent in Livermore Falls. This summer, the town adopted single-stream recycling through ecomaine, which picks up the recyclables at no cost, compared to the $56 a ton it costs the town to dispose of non-recyclable waste. Nichols said it is not yet clear how that has impacted the recycling rate.

Pay-per-bag systems are controversial because it means charging residents for a service that has generally been offered for free. Sanford residents must now pay $1.25 for a 15-gallon bag and $2 for a 33-gallon bag. But they are allowed to throw out unlimited recyclables without sorting in any size container up to 32 gallons.

Although Sanford could drastically lower its trash disposal fees this year with its new pay-per-bag system, some residents are far from happy. They gathered 919 signatures from voters, when only 687 were needed, to put a question on the November ballot asking voters to require the town to go back to the old system.

Out in the neighborhoods of Sanford, opinions about the pay-per-bag are mixed. Cecile Letourneau of Andrews Avenue said the new system is confusing and she will vote against it.

“It’s terrible. I don’t know what to put into my barrel anymore,” Letourneau said.

Hector White on James Avenue said he doesn’t mind the new system nor does he consider it expensive. He said a single bag can last his family two weeks.

“It’s the right thing to do,” White said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]