New London pitches pay-per-bag trash program

New London — The city made its first public pitch on Wednesday for a pay-as-you-throw trash program that officials say will reduce city costs by increasing recycling rates.

The general idea is to require residents to pay for official New London trash bags to dispose of garbage, which in turn will provide incentive to reduce trash and increase recycling.

There was a mixed reaction from the more than 100 people who attended the informational forum at the Science and Technology Magnet High School. Some said they would keep an open mind and credited the city for thinking of a way to address the city’s poor recycling rate, while others viewed the move as an additional cost for a service already paid for in taxes.

“Pay to throw is double taxation. Period,” said Frank McLaughlin, whose company maintains 55 rental units in the city.

“Let’s identify the problem. Let’s figure out how to reward those that recycle rather than punish those that do not,” he said.

Like others, McLaughlin remained skeptical and said he envisioned overflowing trash receptacles in the City Center District from residents trying to skirt the rules. Others wondered how the city would enforce compliance.

Public Works Director Brian Sear said the reality is that the city’s public works department is stretched thin and has an aging fleet of vehicles conducting curbside garbage pickup. The program could reduce the $2.25 million the city now spends on solid waste disposal by $600,000 to $700,000.

Kristen Brown, vice president of municipal partnerships with WasteZero and a consultant for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the incentive provides a “utility effect,” pushing people to think of their garbage in a way they think about the cost of electricity or gas.

She said there are several reasons to consider the program, including increases in waste-removal costs and the fact that waste incinerators are running out of capacity. The city spends $58 per ton for disposal of a yearly average of about 12,000 tons of solid waste — a cost that is subsidized by the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority.

“The more we can divert from the waste stream, the more we can save,” she said. “People think differently about things they buy. They think differently about how they throw things away.”

The environmental impact would be equivalent to 8,600 solar panels installed across the city or elimination of the use of 939,000 gallons of fuel every year because of the reduced carbon footprint, she said.

Brown has been traveling around the state helping communities implement or at least think about starting so-called SMART (Save Money and Reduce Trash) programs throughout the state. While there are more than 30 Connecticut towns with some form of SMART program, only two offer curbside pickup: Stonington and Mansfield.

With an 18 percent recycling rate, New London annually tosses 850 pounds of municipal solid waste per capita. Stonington, which implemented its pay-per-bag program in 1992, is at 396 pounds per capita, according to DEEP. Unit-based pricing programs typically see a decrease in solid waste production to between 400 and 600 pounds per person per year.

Bags in New London would cost $1 for a 33-gallon and 60 cents for a tall kitchen trash bag. It would mean an upfront cost for the resident but ultimately result in annual savings as recycling numbers go up, Brown said. She said the average household would use one bag per week. Bag revenue alone could generate more than $350,000 annually.

Details on just how pickup of the special bags would occur have yet to be worked out, though Sear said the new system could eliminate the need for larger trucks altogether if the bags were placed curbside, allowing public works employees to sling them into the back of a small truck. The large trash bins used now cost the city about $800,000 and might well be used for recycling containers.

A similar curbside pickup system is used in Worcester, Mass., where retired public works commissioner Bob Moylan, who attended Wednesday’s forum, said the city has become “the model for solid waste management in Massachusetts.”

Sear said the incentive for exploring the idea now is DEEP awarded the city two grants totaling $52,000 earmarked for outreach and pre-implementation of the program. The City Council has yet to take up the idea, which could be implemented on a one-year trial basis.

Mayor Michael Passero said the program would allow the city to create better equity from every entity in the city that disposes of waste, noting that more than 40 percent of city properties are owned by tax-exempt organizations. Taxpayers, he said, are right now subsidizing the cost of trash removal for those entities.

g.smith@theday.com

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