Terry Stange drops his recyclables into a bin Monday at the city facility on Gracelawn Road in Auburn. City officials announced they will restart curbside recycling, which they stopped earlier this year, but continue the recycling facility to compare the two operations. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

AUBURN — The city is planning to reintroduce curbside recycling in a new pilot program after ending its biweekly pickup earlier this year.

Despite criticism of its drop-off-only system since then, city officials have defended the decision and say the pilot program will allow Auburn to “make a decision based on data.”

The pilot program, likely beginning in October, would restart weekly curbside recycling in select parts of the city — both urban and rural areas — and would stipulate only certain items be included in bins. It would continue the drop-off at Auburn Public Works on Gracelawn Road, and after a period of months staff would compare the recycling and contamination rates from both systems.

Officials would then decide whether to fund a full curbside program during next year’s budget talks.

In a memo to the City Council last week, Mayor Jason Levesque said he and other city officials recently met with its recycling contractor, Casella, to assess its current and former programs and get further clarification on what items are being recycled. According to the memo, this will lead to staff issuing guidance to residents taking part in the pilot program to avoid including glass and some types of plastics in the curbside collection.

When presenting the plan to the council, Levesque described it as a “data-driven way to see if we can increase participation, but also to ensure recycling is actually happening.”


He said in partnership with Casella, Auburn would also increase public education on “what goes into recycling and how to prevent contamination.” That would include “making sure residents are covering their recycling to prevent moisture, and if that is not possible, holding onto it until the following week,” the memo said.

Residents have small, uncovered bins issued by the city years ago, but the pilot program could also play a role in determining whether the city shifts to larger, covered bins for automated pickup used by many other communities.

When the council made the decision to end its curbside program in May, part of the argument was that it could save the money for an automated trash collection system next year. Levesque said officials could use data from the pilot program make a decision on whether to invest in the larger bins for automated pickup.

A report from the city’s former Recycling Committee said the city’s use of uncovered bins contributes to its contamination rate.

“By creating a new best practice pilot program with a statistically relevant sample size of participants, we can more effectively gather data on efficacy, participation, contamination, and more,” Levesque’s memo said.

Asked about the drop-off system at the Auburn Public Works facility, Levesque said Casella has seen relatively low contamination rates. However, due to overflowing bins and other issues, the city recently said it would limit hours.


Some, including Art Dingley who spoke at last week’s council meeting, argue that the city has continually made recycling more difficult for people.

Dingley said the facility is a 16-mile round trip from his house. He called it “a nasty facility where nobody lives and nobody goes.” The system is “inconvenient, poorly managed and hypocritical.” The city’s more in-depth look at its recycling program should’ve happened a long time ago, he said.

City Councilor Dana Staples, who was out of the country when the council voted to remove the curbside program from this year’s budget, said he took part in the recent meeting with Casella.

“Casella’s staff displayed an eagerness to work with Auburn to figure out together how to make Auburn’s curbside recycling program more successful,” he said. “I think a pilot program will probably cause confusion at first, but I think it’s a good step to provide some data points about how this new path forward compares with our previous program that was stopped in June. I will continue to advocate for Auburn’s return to a curbside recycling program.

Staples said that with Casella’s help, the city will be able to improve education around what should be put in bins and Auburn’s recent data on contamination is a positive sign.

In Levesque’s memo, he said education will focus on changes to Auburn’s system, such as “glass should go into household trash, and some plastics should not be placed in recycling bins.”


From Casella’s perspective, however, recycling glass is still beneficial because it is crushed and used as road base or daily cover at landfills. In their view, that preserves other natural resources by avoiding the need for virgin material for those purposes.

However, from the start, Auburn has argued that it can dispose of material much more cheaply at Maine Waste to Energy, where it is incinerated, rather than paying more per ton to Casella to dispose of the material. Officials said part of its “data-driven” plan is to find out “to what extent our recycling is actually benefiting the environment once we factor in variables such as contamination, freight omissions, and off-gassing.”

In a statement Monday, Jeff Weld, director of communications for Casella, said the company is “encouraged by the ongoing discussions regarding effective recycling programs for the residents of Auburn.”

“Even through the loss of the curbside program, we have continued to work to find solutions to meet the needs of residents either through individual subscription services or the implementation of a community drop-off location,” he said. “The mayor’s desire to find collaborative solutions to recycle more, and recycle better, is an encouraging step forward. The discussions on how best to implement these solutions are ongoing as we look to determine the service offerings that will help the city meet its environmental and economic sustainability goals.”

According to the city memo, city staff is preparing a more detailed outline of the pilot program for the City Council to consider at its next meeting on Sept. 18.

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