Cape Elizabeth councilors are eager to save money, fight global warming and stop financing dictators – all by slimming down the town’s plus-sized trash disposal habits.

Cape residents produce more trash per capita than residents of any of its neighboring towns – a whopping 975 pounds per person goes through the Cape Elizabeth transfer station each year. For comparison, Windham produces 468 pounds of refuse per person per year. On top of this, the town’s relatively low recycling rate, 22 percent, is contributing to a hefty solid waste bill for a relatively small town.

Councilors want to get Cape’s recycling rate up, largely because it costs less than one-forth as much to get rid of recyclables versus trash – $38 per ton versus $180 per ton (including transportation).

As costs for everything rise, councilors are considering new measures to encourage people to recycle, such as as charging residents per bag of trash instead of offering unlimited transfer station usage.

This has proven effective in other towns, but councilors are worried about angering their constituency with a unilateral pay-per-bag rule, and they also know that residents would miss their beloved transfer station – a social hub in an almost exclusively residential town – were the “convenience” of curbside pick-up to come to town.

In addition, according to Town Manager Michael McGovern’s calculations, none of the options on the table would necessarily save Cape that much money.

Cape currently throws out 61 percent more than the average town using ecomaine, the regional recycler, according to McGovern, to the tune of $830,000 per year.

Councilors suspect there are several reasons why Cape is so trash-happy: People who live in Cape bring their trash home to throw out because disposal is free; people with more disposable income tend to produce more trash; and many people may not be motivated to recycle when it doesn’t save them money and there are no consequences for not doing it.

“Going to the transfer station is a very popular activity,” said Town Council Chairwoman Mary Ann Lynch. “This is not Darien, Connecticut.”

The pay-per-bag waste discussion is part of a broader look the Town Council is taking at its energy consumption, trash disposal and recycling habits, largely at the urging of Councilor Paul McKenney, who views reducing the town’s carbon footprint and dependence on foreign oil as a priority in today’s political and economic climate.

Lynch said that since she and her family began making an effort to recycle, they have cut their non-recyclable waste by 70 percent, producing no more than two bags of trash per month. Lynch says becoming a recycling family takes a minimum of effort once you make the decision – after all, the hopper and recycling bins are right next to each other at the transfer station.

But how to convince Cape residents to make the relatively minimal effort it takes to separate trash and recycling? Last week at a Town Council/recycling committee meeting, councilors toyed with the idea that better education might make better recyclers. But they also know that the best method of getting people to reduce their trash in other area towns has been to insititute a pay-per-bag rule and contracting for curbside pickup.

“I’ve been around ecomaine for 30 years,” McGovern said. “I know what they would tell us – curbside pickup and pay-per-throw.”

Pay-per-bag and curbside pickup have been effective in increasing recycling and decreasing hopper-bound trash in Windham, Gorham and Portland – the three towns in the area surveyed by Cape officials with the lowest per-capita trash volume and the highest trash-recycling rate.

However, Cape officials say, there is usually a public backlash – at least in the beginning – when a town institutes pay-per-bag or curbside pickup.

“If you throw too much change at them at one time it is a recipe for failure,” Lynch said.

“It is huge change for people, pay-per-bag,” added Councilor Sara Lennon. “I think for the first six weeks people will grumble and moan and say ‘This is crazy,’ but after that they’ll be fine.”

At last week’s meeting, councilors bickered about whether the savings from instituting a pay-per-bag policy would be “significant” to taxpayers. If the policy were to get Cape’s recycling rate on par with other area communities’, it would save the town about $91,700 per year, according to McGovern’s calculations. At $2 a bag, with each household buying 50 bags, the income to the town from pay-to-throw garbage bags would be about $324,000. But while the amount “saved” would be about half of the solid waste budget, the money would still be coming from taxpayers, not through tax bills but through the purchase of garbage bags.

To Lynch, those savings are nonetheless worthwhile – particularly in a town that voted down its school budget twice this summer over $260,000, a number that represents roughly 1 percent of the municipal budget. But Councilor David Backer sees smoke and mirrors, occasioning a short debate with Lynch at last week’s meeting.

“(The savings) are significant. Let’s not minimize that,” Lynch said.

“That’s not a savings for the taxpayer,” Backer said.

“That is a savings for the taxpayer,” Lynch replied.

“It’s not. It’s not,” Backer said.

“I think Mike’s (McGovern’s) savings are on the low side,” Lynch said.

For McKenney, who proposed tackling the town’s trash issues earlier this summer, recycling and lowering one’s “carbon footprint” is a matter of common sense, but also a matter of democracy and patriotism in a time when oil prices are swelling and Americans have been embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East for more than a decade.

The Town Council, meanwhile, will continue its discussion of the solid waste issues this fall. At least one public hearing will be held.

“I think we have a responsibility here that is very significant,” said McKenney, “more significant than I think we realize.”


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