Some towns embrace pay-per-bag, others don't

As New London and Montville consider pay-per-bag trash proposals, two local towns that started similar programs in the 1990s have had different experiences.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection says on its website that pay-as-you-throw programs, which charge residents per bag of trash, are a way to reach a higher reduction and recycling rate statewide. East Lyme ran such a program for several years before discontinuing it in 1998. Stonington, on the other hand, which started its program about the same time as East Lyme, continues to have it in place.

While East Lyme doesn't offer incentives or charge residents fees for garbage disposal after ending its pay-per-bag program, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said the town's single-stream recycling program — along with the barrels and free pick-up that the town provides to residents — makes it easy for people to recycle. The town posts on its website and social media about what can and can't be recycled.

"We encourage recycling," Nickerson said. "We've gotten a good response from our citizens."

East Lyme issues every household two different colored barrels: one for recycling that gets picked up every other week, and one for trash that gets picked up every week. The service is paid for through property taxes. The town had a 40 percent recycling rate in 2016-17, according to Director of Public Works Joseph J. Bragaw.

Nickerson said recycling has become a habit for people, like wearing a seat belt.

"It's just become an American lifestyle," he added. "It's just what people do."

East Lyme residents who need additional trash barrels beyond the town-provided container are able to purchase from the town a 96-gallon can for $75 or a 56-gallon can for $55, according to the town website. Additional recycling cans are free.

Pay-per-bag in East Lyme

In 1992, the East Lyme Board of Selectmen voted to introduce a pay-per-bag program after discussing whether to raise taxes or implement a fee system to help offset the cost of depositing garbage at the trash-to-energy plant in Preston. Residents paid $1.40 for a 30-gallon trash bag and 80 cents for a 15-gallon bag. In addition to offsetting costs, the program also was intended to encourage residents to recycle more.

Long-serving Selectwoman Rose Ann Hardy said many people were on board when the program was introduced in 1992, and East Lyme was considered a model community in the state.

But the program did not prove to be popular, Nickerson said. He said it was an inconvenience for households to always have a supply of bags and people then had to run to the store to get them if they ran out. The town also had problems with illegal dumping, and some businesses had to lock their commercial dumpsters to prevent people from unloading their trash there. According to The Day's archives, some people reportedly took their trash with them to work to throw out there.

In 1998, under the administration of the newly elected First Selectman Wayne Fraser, for whom eliminating the pay-per-bag program was a campaign pledge, the Board of Selectmen voted 5-1 to end it. 

Hardy, who voted against ending the program, said she felt the program was environmentally and personally responsible.

"I am still a big advocate of it but it's like many programs: you have to have the community on board," she said.

With the end of the pay-per-bag program in 1998, as well as the implementation of an automated collection system with large barrels in the early 2000s, recycling decreased, The Day reported.

East Lyme introduced a new recycling program in 2006, and single-stream recycling in 2009, in which residents place all recyclable materials in one container. The year after implementing the single-stream program, the town reported a 35 percent increase in household recycling.

Program working in Stonington

John Phetteplace, Stonington’s solid waste director and the president of Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority, said the reaction to the pay-per-bag program was different in his town.

While opponents say such programs will create issues such as illegal dumping, Stonington hasn't had that problem or others, he said.

"That isn’t our experience, regardless of where in town it was," he said. "People respect their property."

"These programs work," Phetteplace said. Communities with the program generate between 40 percent and 50 percent less trash than communities without it, whether through source reduction, recycling, composting or other means, he said. People pay more attention to how much trash they are generating and how much they are recycling.

Lee Sawyer, legislative affairs director for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said his agency is interested in looking at data to see whether East Lyme's program was effective in reducing garbage. He said DEEP reviews both successful and unsuccessful programs across New England to see what works and if there are any lessons learned. He said the pay-as-you-throw program has a strong track record in reducing trash in Massachusetts.

New London City Council is anticipated to take a vote Monday on a pay-as-you-throw proposal that New London says, on a website for the proposal, will cut down on waste, boost recycling and save the city money. 

In Montville, the Public Works/Solid Waste Committee is planning to review the pay-as-you-throw proposal, after the Town Council called off a vote.

According to 2014 data from DEEP, East Lyme recycled 242.70 pounds per person per year.

Stonington recycled 145.48 pounds per person per year, New London recycled 95.49 pounds, and Montville recycled 152.28 pounds, according to the data.

When asked if East Lyme would reconsider the pay-per-bag program, Nickerson said he can "never say never" but a compelling reason would have to arise, considering residents clearly were against it 20 years ago.

k.drelich@theday.com

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