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Ledyard tosses around idea of pay-as-you-throw trash system

Ledyard — Officials here are considering shifting to a pay-as-you-throw trash system, like those under consideration in Montville and New London, if recycling doesn't improve.

The change, according to Mayor Fred Allyn III, is being discussed because of an evolving recycling market, an inadequate level of recycling and because it's projected to save money for the town.

"The PAYT model was presented some time back and the evidence supporting a real reduction in trash and a marked increase in recycling is evident," Allyn wrote in an email this week. "The fly in the ointment now is the Chinese were our number one buyer of recyclables, but they have ratcheted up their standards for what they accept, including the what, the how clean, etcetera."

Ledyard curbside collection and single-stream service is paid for through taxes and provided by Willimantic Waste Paper Company.

In the past, such single-stream separating companies have made sizable investments in processing facilities to encourage recycling, allowing people to throw all their recyclables together into curbside rolling carts placed in towns like Ledyard. But in recent years, revenues have fallen as China has cut back on the purchase of materials collected through such programs.

"Unfortunately, the quality of materials coming from the single-stream process when they're separated is not as good as the quality of pure separation at the curbs," Town Councilor William Saums said Monday.

The main difference between Ledyard's present trash-removal process and the pay-as-you-throw system is that residents would be required to use special bags supplied to local retail outlets. Prices vary by town but the bags usually cost about $1 each. The method of collection — curbside pickup — would be unchanged.

Pay-as-you-throw systems seek to reduce waste by encouraging residents to compost more, increase recycling and generally be more conscientious of what they throw out, said David Aldridge, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority.

Aldridge and John Phetteplace, solid waste and recycling director for the town of Stonington, said the average household will use one to two of the special bags per week. The pay-as-you-throw program that Ledyard is considering is based on Stonington's.

It's not clear what changes, if any, would be considered for Ledyard's collection of recyclables. According to Stonington's website, Willimantic Waste Paper provides single-stream recycling collection to that town.

The recycling rate in Ledyard is slightly higher than 23 percent. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection goal is a rate of 60 percent diversion of materials from disposal by 2024. Allyn is aiming to significantly increase Ledyard's recycling rate, which would make adopting a pay-as-you-throw system less likely.

"We don't have confidence in the CT DEEP goal as being attainable, but we do want to see our 23 percent grow — even possibly double," Allyn wrote in an email.

DEEP data show that in 2014 Ledyard recycled 161.9 pounds of bottles, cans and paper per person. Only Old Lyme, Lyme, East Lyme and Waterford recycled more per person in southeastern Connecticut. Montville, with 152.3 pounds; Stonington, with 145.5 pounds, and North Stonington, with 141.2 pounds, are the three towns immediately behind Ledyard.

According to 2017 data from WasteZero Inc., a corporation that provides pay-as-you-throw services, Stonington generates only 398 pounds of waste per capita in the program. That's far less than East Lyme, which produces 650 pounds of waste per capita; Norwich, 687 pounds; Ledyard, 713 pounds; New London, 743 pounds, and Waterford, 821 pounds.

Ledyard receives monthly reports of trash and recycling tonnage from its trash hauler and SCRRRA, and will be monitoring the reports in the near future to see if switching to pay-as-you-throw is necessary. Public Works Director Steve Masalin has a spreadsheet of this data, which show that recycling has increased moderately and total tonnage has been mostly flat since the 2015 switch to automatic collection.

Another reason for the possible move to pay-as-you-throw is that it's a more equitable system that shifts the direct cost of trash and recyclables removal to users. Phetteplace compared it to having an electric bill, which residents pay according to the amount of electricity they use, as opposed to a flat-rate tax.

"Treating trash like any other utility makes sense to me," Phetteplace said. "The cost should be borne by the generator, not by how much taxes you pay. When the cost is related to your behavior, you pay attention to it."

The town's tipping fee for waste dumped at a disposal site currently is $58 dollars per ton. Less trash means lower tipping fee totals. Aldridge and Phetteplace both say pay-as-you-throw decreases trash by 40 percent to 50 percent in most cases. Ledyard predicts a $450,000 budget reduction if the town were to make the switch, according to a WasteZero analysis.

Potential backlash

The way Saums sees it, the switch may be worth the potential headaches it causes residents.

"I myself don't want to put my garbage in little bags I have to buy, it's a pain in the neck," he said.

Saums also recognizes the controversy pay-as-you-throw creates, pointing out the "300 or 500" comments about it on the Ledyard Community Forum Facebook page. If the town does make the switch, he wants it to be a smooth, mutually agreed upon process and promised town officials would consider public input before enacting any change.

Phetteplace hearkened back to 1992, when Stonington switched to a pay-as-you-throw system. He said concerns about the program were the same then as they are now: fears of possible increases in illegal dumping, higher costs with residents thinking they'd need five to 10 bags a week, and that there would be more trash on roadsides, among other issues. New London, for example, has dealt with public backlash when weighing the program.

"I continually become frustrated when I think, this is a program that works," Phetteplace said. "The naysayers out there that say you'll have all of these negative impacts — it's not accurate. Stonington hasn't experienced that."

"What it takes is some political will to say, 'You know, this is the right thing to do,'" Phetteplace added. "'We're in fiscal crisis, we've got difficult budget years ahead, this is a responsible thing to do.'"

Saums said it is human nature to be resistant to change, and Phetteplace attributed some of the aversion to a general distrust of government. Both said the loudest critics often are the owners of businesses that generate high amounts of waste.

But there's also an unlikely class of detractors. "Many people who are religious about recycling are the most offended when we talk about pay-per-throw because they think everybody else is recycling," Saums said.

More education, enforcement needed

Saums and Allyn both say education is an essential part of getting residents to recycle more.

"I think we could get a lot better if more people recycled and were more conscientious about what they recycled," Saums said. "We could fix a lot of things just through education, and if everyone were to recycle and do it in a serious way, there's no reason to go to pay-per-throw."

The town has added educational materials to its website as well as conducted "Did you know?" social media campaigns. SCRRRA also has conducted information sessions in the area.

For Phetteplace, enforcing pay-as-you-throw guidelines means simply leaving a person's trash on the curb if it isn't in the proper bag. "Nobody wants their garbage laying around for weeks," he said. "Whether you make $10,000 a year or $100,000 a year, you don't want your garbage in your front yard."

With illegal dumping, he said enforcement involves picking up a bag, finding out who it belongs to based on the contents, warning the offender and turning it over to police to fine the person if it happens again.

Irresponsible recyclers in Ledyard also are subject to fines.

"The process is to educate and warn, then fine," Allyn wrote in an email.

An evergreen issue

Kristen Brown of WasteZero has been involved in a roughly two-and-a-half year process to persuade Ledyard town leaders to support pay-as-you-throw. She said 556 New England communities participate in such programs, and about 10 Connecticut towns are thinking about making the switch. WasteZero usually works with towns to implement the change.

The conversation continues as trash capacity is going down. "A lot of landfills in Massachusetts are closing," Aldridge said.

Saums doesn't want to pay the extra money to transport trash out of state. And with trends in the recycling industry, even if Ledyard meets its recycling goals, he isn't sure it will be enough to avoid shifting to pay-as-you-throw.

"All of this points us in the direction of, we're gonna have a trash problem," Saums said.

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