The city of Portland will explore privatizing the collection of its trash and recyclables as part of a review that is expected to bring major changes to a waste management program that has become increasingly unpopular with residents and municipal officials.

The City Council will hold a workshop June 13 to begin discussing options. Plans to modernize the city’s solid waste system have been talked about for years, and the debate comes as the program has drawn complaints and criticism about litter from no-lid recycling bins, rising prices for the city-required trash bags and public works employees who were caught on video dumping trash and recycling into the same garbage truck.

“I don’t hear anyone wanting to keep the system we currently have. The only question now is what is the best option for Portland to move forward,” said Councilor Ed Suslovic, who sits on the Energy and Sustainability Committee.

Advocates of modernizing waste-handling operations say Portland’s system is outdated compared with nearby communities such as South Portland and Westbrook. And although it’s not yet clear what city officials will decide, the change could come relatively soon. The city hopes to fund a new solid waste system in next year’s budget.

“We are actually lagging behind our peers. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do this,” Suslovic said.

Currently, residents pay $1.35 each for the city’s purple trash bags, which can be left at the curb for pickup. Residents are allowed to recycle as much as they want at no cost, and leave those materials at the curb in blue plastic bins.

The Department of Public Works provides curbside collection for both trash and recycling, using trucks that are each operated by two-person crews. Some trucks are assigned to pick up trash, and other trucks travel the same streets gathering recyclables.

That basic system is likely to change. The city is considering an automated collection system that uses modern trucks with equipment that can pick up curbside bins and empty the trash or recycling into the truck’s compartments.

LAGGING BEHIND NEIGHBOR CITIES

One of the big questions is whether it is more cost-effective to keep using municipal employees to do the collections or to contract with a private company.

And one thing that isn’t likely to change is the requirement that residents pay for the amount of trash they throw out. The city has a relatively high recycling rate – the volume of recyclables collected is equal to about 40 percent of the total volume of trash – and that success is largely attributed to the fees for trash bags. Such pay-per-bag fees are a proven incentive for communities that want to reduce the trash volume and increase recycling.

“I know it has been a source of controversy, but it has been a primary driver of us having high recycling rates,” said City Manager Jon Jennings.

Principally, city officials want to improve the recycling program. Although Portland residents are committed to recyclables, an April 2015 report from Kessler Consulting, an independent waste firm, pointed out deficiencies in the system.

Some of the report’s key findings were that the recycling containers are not large enough for the amount residents recycle, and that some trucks operate at or above capacity during their runs. Materials in the uncovered bins often fall out, contributing to a litter problem.

“Part of the problem is that without covered bins, stuff blows all over the place,” Jennings said. At a minimum, the city should move to a system with larger lidded carts, he said.

“That would incentivize people to recycle and prevent litter,” Jennings said.

The system would be similar to the one in South Portland, where residents use large, 64-gallon wheeled bins – blue for recycling and green for trash – that are placed at the curb close to collection time. Each collection truck has one driver, who operates a mechanized arm that picks up the bins and empties them into separate compartments for trash and recycling.

PROS, CONS OF PRIVATIZATION

But a bin collection system isn’t without its issues, especially on Portland’s peninsula, where narrow streets could make collection difficult, especially in the winter.

“One of the problems with a full cart system is: Where do you put these things in the roadway in order to access them?” Jennings said.

If Portland does change its system, the next question is whether to go with a private company or keep the service part of public works.

The Kessler Consulting report said a private company would bear the upfront costs of vehicles, equipment and training, but Portland would lose full control over service quality and responsiveness to customers. The report did not “perceive a compelling reason” to privatize from an operational or cost-saving perspective. The city also would lose employees who double as snowplow operators during the winter.

Jennings said he doesn’t believe the report looked closely enough at the issue of contracting out for the service, and that it is an option that remains on the table for the council.

Privatization would be a more difficult change than the switch to modern trucks.

“It is a shame if the city cannot run an effective and efficient program and take out the middleman,” said Councilor Jon Hinck, chairman of the Energy and Sustainability Committee.

QUESTIONS OVER INCENTIVE PAY

The cost of keeping services with the city would be less than contracting out, according to city projections.

For example, the net annual operating cost of a trash and recycling cart system with public works would be $271,574, compared with $3.1 million for a private service. Modernizing the city’s service, however, would require an estimated $4 million investment, according to city projections.

Other alternatives, such as keeping bags for trash but using carts for recycling, would cost the same for the city, but about $1.6 million a year for a private service.

The city may also examine the incentive-pay policy for trash and recycling employees. Currently, recycling and trash collectors are paid for a full workweek but are encouraged to complete their work in less time.

That incentive structure encourages employees to work quickly, creating a tendency to short-cut property collection practices and increase the risk of injury and property damage, according to the report. Instead, the city should explore a system that rewards quality and safety, it says.

A number of residents have questioned whether Portland’s incentive-pay system was the reason why the two employees caught on video were commingling trash and recycling in the West End this month, but city officials insist that the practice is neither common nor condoned. The city is investigating the incident and may discipline the two employees.

“From my standpoint, I am very disappointed that happened,” Jennings said. “We have a few examples of people not following the rules, not doing what they are supposed to be doing, and everyone else is painted with a broad brush.”

Depending on what collection program the city eventually goes with, the incentive-pay system will likely be reviewed, Suslovic said.

“It changes the nature of the duties considerably if you are driving an automated truck,” he said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:07 a.m. on May 31, 2016 to correct the date of the workshop.