BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Despite concerns that a proposed regulation smacks of “Big Brother” and carries potential fines, city councilors appear ready to support Mayor Kim Driscoll’s mandatory recycling program.
At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, councilors voted to move a mandatory recycling ordinance before the full council for a vote, most likely this week.
While expressing displeasure with the word “mandatory” and fears about potential fines for residents who don’t recycle, some councilors also sounded excited about a program that could save the city money while helping the environment.
“I love this program,” Ward 3 Councilor Todd Siegel said.
Siegel rattled off figures from other communities that have mandatory recycling, showing annual savings of more than $90,000 in one town that was able to reduce its trash tonnage.
Under a new trash contract expected to take effect July 1, Salem will save $61.50 for every ton of material not sent to a disposal site. In other words, the more the city recycles, the more money it can save.
Under the city’s dual-stream program, residents can recycle aluminum containers, paper, metal, glass and some plastics.
The average Salem household generates about a ton of trash a year, according to material supplied by the city.
Several councilors appeared more comfortable supporting the measure after being told they could adopt an implementation plan that makes it clear there will be a long grace period, that residents will be provided with numerous educational materials and multiple notices, and that fines would be a last and, hopefully, seldom-used resort.
The ordinance calls for a written notice for a first violation, a written warning for the second, and a $25 fine for third and subsequent offenses.
Driscoll, who brought the proposal to the council, agreed that the goal is not to take money out of residents’ pockets. Financial penalties are only included, she said, because the city is required to do so in order to receive a $50,000 state grant to hire a mandatory recycling coordinator.
“I wish it wasn’t ‘mandatory,’” she said. “I wish it was ‘strongly encouraged.’ Those are the state’s words.
“It’s meant to be a positive tool,” the mayor said. “It’s not meant to be punitive.”
Driscoll said the city contacted two communities with mandatory programs, Haverhill and Lowell, and was told they have issued a combined total of only three fines since their programs began.
Several councilors were bothered by language in the new ordinance that the trash hauler “shall not collect any solid waste placed curbside that is not accompanied by a properly marked recycling receptacle placed curbside and containing recyclable material.”
Ward 1 Councilor Bob McCarthy asked what happens if the recycling truck comes first and a resident puts his bins away. Does the trash get left at the curb?
Ward 2 Councilor Mike Sosnowski wanted to know what happens if the wind blows a recycling container down the street.
City officials tried to assure councilors that all those issues can be worked out and that fines will not be issued in those cases.
There were other questions about whether landlords would be fined for tenants who don’t put out recycling. One city official said landlords in communities with mandatory recycling often make that a condition on a lease.
The mayor assured councilors that the mandatory recycling coordinator is not paid by taxpayers and will not be a permanent position.
“We are not looking to keep this job on long-term,” she said.
Veteran Councilor Joe O’Keefe raised a number of objections about a program that has been adopted by more than 70 communities, including Danvers.
“I think that’s a Big Brother attitude the state is fostering on local communities,” he said.
Increasing recycling is not only good for the environment, Driscoll said, but it is good for the pocketbook.
“The fact of the matter is if we recycle a lot we save money and our costs go down,” she said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The percentage of a community's total trash tonnage that is recycled.
Source: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection