Waterville is struggling with a rise in people dumping their trash in public spaces.
In this Jan. 5, 2021, file photo, full trash cans sit alongside a Bangor road.  Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville residents who cannot afford the rising costs of disposing of their refuse are filling public trash cans and dumping household waste in parking lots and on sidewalks.

Councilors who are frustrated with the limited number of trash cans and overflowing trash want to find solutions. A group of residents who organized a cleanup effort on Facebook, along with the city’s public works team, volunteered part of their weekend to collect trash at the concourse because the issue has become so unpleasant for visitors, patrons and others.

Waterville offers pay-as-you-throw garbage collection, which requires participating residents to purchase special Waterville trash bags in order for the city to pick up their trash, according to the city’s website. Residents can also opt to contract with private haulers for their trash removal.

As costs related to housing, food and necessities rise, it’s becoming harder for Mainers to cover all of their expenses, including trash removal services and trash bags. At a meeting Tuesday, councilors discussed ways that trash — from the limited number of trash cans to how a city program may not be sustainable for low-income people — is a growing problem. They agreed it’s time for a larger conversation about how the city handles trash and resources available to residents.

Councilors did not vote on the issue, but rather the conversation arose at the end of the meeting, when the board had a chance to share thoughts and concerns.

“I was very happy to see the volunteer effort that happened in the concourse, but I think we need to do a better job of providing a place for people to dispose of their trash there,” Chair Rebecca Green said. “I walked it today [Tuesday], and there are no trash cans on the west side of the concourse and there are many on the east.”

The city provided trash cans throughout the concourse at one point, City Manager Stephen Daly said, but he was told there was difficulty keeping the cans empty and preventing people from dumping their household trash in them.

“On top of it all, that whole strip along there is private property,” he said. “Public works and the city drifted away from it, and I think that was more than a couple years ago.”

Business owners who don’t take care of the fronts of their stores should be penalized, Mayor Jay Coelho said. Even if the city gives them trash cans, they won’t empty them, he said. He proposed an ordinance that would require them to maintain cleanliness because all the work cannot fall on the city, especially on private property, Coelho said.

“People are going to illegally dump all over our city,” he said. “They do it now. We’re constantly [removing] mattresses [from] over embankments.”

The mayor also noted he watches from his workplace on Common Street people illegally dump their trash, which overflows and sometimes sits there for a week at a time.

There used to be three large blue trash cans near the Waterville Public Library and they were removed for the same reasons that Daly pointed out, said Cindy Jacobs, board of trustees president. Then residents began dumping more trash at the library, which was forced to reduce the trash cans on its patio, she said.

Green has spoken a number of times with a Waterville resident who lives in a trailer park and pays for waste disposal. The resident’s rent recently increased by $75, and he pays $35 in garbage fees each month, she said. Lawn maintenance and snow removal are other expenses.

Waterville can’t do much to prevent rents from increasing besides introducing rent control, Green said, but there are ways to help residents with improved trash service. Low-income residents are burdened by the city’s solid waste system, she said.

The purple trash bags available through Waterville’s pay-as-you-throw system are sold at grocery and convenience stores, and they cost $13 for five 30-gallon bags and $13 for eight 15-gallon bags, according to the city’s website.

Councilor Flavia DeBrito wondered if the city has a program to help low-income residents acquire trash bags. Green said she discussed with city officials having the bags available for pickup through Waterville’s general assistance program, which aids people who are unable to provide basic necessities for themselves or their families.

Councilors DeBrito and Claude Francke visited the concourse last Friday, when the Greater Waterville Poverty Action Coalition had a giveaway table with essential items set up. They spoke with people who frequent the area and don’t necessarily attend council meetings.

As the city plans for its next phase of development downtown, they’d like to see more trash cans, public restrooms and a transportation bus hub, among other things, Francke said.

“We have to recognize that this is a hardship for many low-income people,” Green said. “We should look at how we can help.”