ORLEANS – The board of health may be warming up to the idea of bringing a pay as you throw program to Orleans, but town officials say there are still questions that need answering before anything can be rolled out.
By charging residents according to what they throw out and recycle, the select board hopes pay as you throw can help curb the amount of solid waste handled by the town's transfer station operation, 37 percent of which is subsidized by taxpayer dollars. That subsidy comes to approximately $473,000 for fiscal 2023, according to Tom Daley, the town's public works director.
Health board members last month expressed skepticism with reopening the conversation on pay as you throw, especially after a past attempt to consider the program in 2019 failed to win public support. Instead, residents said they favored more education on proper recycling and the need to curb solid waste.
"I think I could get on board with pay as you throw," Board of Health Chair Joe Hartung said during a joint meeting between the health and select boards Sept. 15. "But I keep going back to the fact that nobody was on board with it [in 2019]. No one."
But Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said things have changed since then. Namely, the transfer station now operates through an enterprise fund, which allows town officials to track where it might be able to save money. Unless something is done to reduce the amount of solid waste coming into the station, she said, the cost to taxpayers to subsidize the station's operation will continue to grow.
"If we keep doing the same thing, the overall cost to the taxpayer is going to rise in proportion," she said. "We'd be looking at higher fees."
Daley said pay as you throw has been proven to help communities save money and reduce their solid waste. In Orleans, he anticipates the solid waste reduction could be as high as 40 percent.
"I've said it before. Pay as you throw is the number one way per the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce solid waste and increase recycling," he said.
But some health board members weren't convinced. John Smith said the proposed $115 transfer station sticker fee associated with the pay as you throw proposal is "significantly" higher than the four other towns on the Cape that have adopted the program.
Smith said in those towns, the highest sticker fee is $50, while the highest cost per bag is $2. The proposal for Orleans calls for residents to be charged $2 for a 33-gallon bag, $1.50 for a 15-gallon bag and $.75 for a seven-gallon bag.
Daley said the proposed costs are flexible. The town could set a lower sticker fee and charge more for the bags, he said. The taxpayer subsidy could also be increased, he said. Daley also noted that the lower sticker fees mean other towns are likely charging their residents more to subsidize their transfer stations.
The proposal would also increase the average user's annual trash disposal cost from $185 a year to about $240, Smith estimated. He factored in the amount of extra trash households would need to dispose of during busy periods including holidays and the summer months.
Smith also questioned the estimated 40 percent solid waste reduction.
"If we're already putting every single piece of paper into recycling, every tin can into the recycling bin, every plastic bag, package and lid into the plastics bin and every wine bottle and glass into the glass bin, where do you believe that municipal 40 percent is going to come from?"
But Daley said there is still more that can be done in town to improve upon recycling, and that pay as you throw can be a motivating force to compel people to recycle more and throw away less. He said the program operates not unlike how people pay for utilities such as electricity.
"You're in control," he said. "You are giving the control to the public to control their destiny in how much you pay."
One area the town could make some meaningful progress in solid waste reduction is through food composting. Daley said the practice could cut the amount of tonnage coming into the transfer station by 35 percent, but that special equipment to grind up and break down the composting material would need to be purchased.
"If we do nothing else and just explored that, what would that look like?" Reed asked.
John Kanaga of the board of health supported boosting the town's composting operations. He noted how in San Francisco, the city noticeably brought down its solid waste by building composting into its infrastructure.
For Select Board member Mefford Runyon, the choice of whether or not to move forward with pay as you throw is simple.
"If the pay as you throw model is less expensive than the existing model, then that's to me the important takeaway," he said.
Kanaga expressed some reluctance with adopting pay as you throw, noting that many recyclable materials aren't ultimately recycled at all.
"I think there's better ways to fix the weight coming out of the DPW," he said.
But Town Administrator John Kelly stressed that one way or another, the town needs to address the volume of materials coming into its transfer station. Statewide, he said, trucks are being turned away from transfer facilities because they are at capacity. Meanwhile, he said Orleans is only recycling at a rate of about 30 percent.
"I think in some respects what we're trying to do here is forward think a little bit and say 'Let's get ahead of this thing a little bit before it finds us and we're playing 'What do we do now,'" he said.
Adopting pay as you throw would require the board of health to put forward the fee change for adoption at a future town meeting. Sims McGrath of the board of health spoke in favor of letting residents decide on the issue.
"I don't see a downside to trying it, and if it gets shot down at town meeting, then we have our answer," he said.
Kelly suggested that the boards come back together again by January to work out more details, after which the program could be set up to go live when the 2024 fiscal year starts on July 1. Starting the program would also involve working with local vendors to provide trash bags, he said.
But Kevin Galligan of the select board said the proposed timeline is too aggressive. More work needs to be done before the town can move forward with the program, he said, including more analysis on how the transfer station is used by people from outside of Orleans.
"This is not ready for January," he said. "I just want to be totally honest with what I'm hearing."
"I'm not asking that we arrive at a decision or commitment to pay as you throw," Reed said. "I'm asking that we continue talking about what's the right step for Orleans, because we have a problem that will not go away."
Reed said some "mid-level" steps could be taken toward pay as you throw before a program is officially adopted. Hartung asked if that could include food composting. The equipment needed to compost food is expensive and difficult to find, but Daley he said he would work toward finding it for purchase.
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