State of Sustainable Communities in Maine
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The State of Sustainable Communities in Maine 2009

By Steve Erario and Meghan Grogan

Executive Summary

The State of Sustainable Communities in Maine 2009 is the final chapter in The State of Maine’s Environment 2009, a report produced by the Environmental Policy Group in the Environmental Studies Program at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  This is the fifth State of Maine’s Environment report published since 2004.

Sustainable development requires reconciling competing environmental, economic, and social interests.  Local governments are increasing efforts to address sustainability issues in response to perceived federal inaction.  Maine currently lacks a method to effectively measure and encourage local sustainability activity.  In response, we developed a prototype Sustainability Activity Index (SAI) to measure the seriousness with which Maine towns and cities are addressing energy and recycling issues.  We evaluated energy and recycling scores for 476 Maine municipalities and found a low level of local activity, with a state-wide mean SAI score of 1.56 (SD ± 1.05) out of 8 possible points.  We found that local governments with high SAI scores have larger budgets, are adjacent to postsecondary institutions, and have higher median household incomes and college graduation rates.  We conclude that our SAI serves as a useful tool for comparing sustainability activity across Maine communities.  We recommend the state delegate responsibility to a governmental or non-governmental entity that could publish SAI scores for all 489 incorporated municipalities in Maine.  We recommend the responsible entity improve our SAI by engaging relevant stakeholders to create and publish an annual “Maine Local Government Sustainability Report Card” that is effective, robust, relevant, and transparent.


Concept of Sustainability

Our Common Future, a report by the 1987 UN Commission on Environment and Development, defines sustainable development as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN WCED 1987). More commonly known as the Brundtland Report, this document commanded global attention and gave political credibility to the concept of sustainability.  The definition recognizes that successfully achieving sustainability requires reconciling the sometimes competing interests of social, environmental, and economic issues, illustrated by the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability (Figure 4.1).


Figure 4.1 The three pillars of sustainability

Importance of Local Government

The development of local sustainability initiatives in the U.S. has lagged behind other nations (Saha 2009).  Though citizens are represented by their Congressional delegations, the problems of states and municipalities are often ignored or sacrificed to dominating issues and interests comprising the national political landscape, such as lobbies (Uphoff 1987).  However, local action provides increased opportunities for citizen involvement in decision-making (John 1994). 

Local governments can serve as laboratories of democracy, where experimentation in ordinances and initiatives carries less risk and fewer costs than large-scale federal action, encouraging creative policy-making and innovation.  Municipal governments can also learn from the success stories of other local governments, and use that knowledge to save time and resources.  Developing capacity for sustainability within local government is necessary for expanding sustainability capacity within civil society, and thus, action at the local level must increase if larger changes are to occur (Evans et al. 2005).

Local businesses, institutions (e.g. universities and churches), and community-based organizations represent stores of knowledge and additional resources (Uphoff 1987).  Local governments can benefit from relationships with these external agencies, and gain valuable local knowledge with more ease than state or federal governments.  Local governments also have the most opportunity to influence school curriculums, conduct locally-marketed outreach, and encourage public participation.  Additionally, local government officials can lead by example and adopt sustainability initiatives that inspire citizens and businesses to increase their own sustainable behavior (Roseland, Connelly et al. 2005). 

Self-sustaining and well-organized local sustainability efforts are well-positioned to receive a growing supply of public and private funding aimed at increasing local sustainability.  Successful public-private partnership projects include examples such as the private sector-financed light rail in Portland, Oregon (O'Meara 1999). 

Home Energy Use: Illustrating Local Sustainability Impacts

The following example focuses on Maine home energy use to illustrate the importance of local action.

Maine residents face two compounding issues: low household incomes and costly energy bills.  Compared to the Northeast, Maine’s housing stock is the oldest and least energy efficient (Colby Environmental Policy Group 2008).  Of all Northeastern states, Maine’s housing stock is also subject to the highest “heating degree days,” a measure of the heating intensity needed to warm a home.  Eight in ten Maine homes are dependent on oil for water and space heating, a higher rate of dependence than other state in the U.S. (Colby Environmental Policy Group 2008).

Dependence on fossil fuels to heat homes contributes significantly to climate changing greenhouse gas emissions.  Climate change may alter Maine’s environment, increasing costs and decreasing revenues for municipalities.  Rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns may prove detrimental to Maine’s built infrastructure, requiring local governments to pay for upgrades and repairs.  Potentially lower winter snow accumulation could also lead to decreased winter sport tourism and associated municipal tax revenues (Frumhoff et al. 2007).

Energy inefficient homes and high dependence on heating oil negatively impact Maine’s economic growth potential.  For each $1.00 spent on heating oil in Maine, $0.85 leaves the state economy, representing a net export of $1.3 billion in 2008 (Baldacci and Kerry 2009).  Exported dollars limit the potential to create quality Maine jobs and reduce positive economic multiplier effects of local purchases. 

In the future, if Maine’s dependence on fuel oil is not reduced, rising heating oil costs will increase the cost of living.  This will further limit living affordability and increase social inequity in Maine (Kerry 2009).  Figure 4.2 illustrates the estimated portion of the average Maine family budget needed to satisfy energy demands over time.  Baldacci and Kerry (2009) find that expenses could rise from about 25% to about 50% of the Maine family budgets from 2008 to 2018. These changes may potentially lead to a sharp decline in municipal tax revenues from emigrating taxpayers unable to afford these cost of living increases.  Changes to home energy expenditures may also increase municipal benefit expenditures to citizens that qualify for general assistance funds.


Figure 4.2 Portion of the Maine Family Budget spent on energy, health, and other expenses in 1998, 2008, and 2018. Energy costs are approximately 50% transportation, 40% home heating, and 10% electricity.  Budget projections assume health care costs are capped at 30% of the family budget in 2018, (reproduced from Baldacci and Kerry 2009).

In sum, this example shows how local governments can be affected by sustainability inaction---economically, environmentally, and socially.  Rising direct costs and falling tax commitments may create significant issues for municipalities failing to adequately plan for sustainability.

Local Government in Maine

Maine has a population of 1.3 million people who live in 917 units of local government.  Approximately 10,000 people live in 428 of these units of government, categorized as the Unorganized Territory.  Our study focuses on approximately 489 incorporated units of local government we commonly refer to as “local governments” or “municipalities” in this report.  Table 4.1 shows the number and % of municipalities in each category by population size. 

Table 4.1 Number of municipalities in five different population ranges; only 4% of municipalities have populations greater than 10,000  (Maine Municipal Association 2009).

Population Group

Number of Municipalities

% of Municipalities Group













Under 1,000






Focus of this Chapter

In this study we propose an initial framework assessment of Maine municipal sustainability activity focused on energy and recycling activity. What follows is a discussion of the methods we used to construct and analyze a Sustainability Activity Index (SAI); laws relevant to municipal energy and recycling activity; stakeholders in local sustainability outcomes; state of energy and recycling in Maine; analysis of findings; scenarios predicting changes in local SAI scores; conclusions; and recommendations for increasing local government sustainability activity.



We measured the activity of Maine municipalities around energy and recycling issues using a Sustainability Activity Index (SAI).  The index is built from eight indicators weighted on a scale of zero to one for a maximum SAI score of eight.  Some studies have examined ten or more sustainability indicators (e.g. Conroy 2009, Lubell 2009).   We chose to focus on two areas: energy and recycling, because smaller cities appear to have less capacity to deal with sustainability issues (e.g. Lubell 2009).  By selecting representable sustainability metrics we were better able to gather data and compare SAI scores across a greater number of municipalities. 

We used ArcGIS 9.3 (ESRI 2009) to spatially represent relationships in our data.  We assigned an index score to each municipality and joined it to data layers obtained from the online Maine GIS catalog, including median household income and the location of colleges and universities (MEGIS 2000a; MEGIS 2000b; MEGIS 2007).  We obtained college degree attainment data from the U.S. Census, and municipal tax commitment data from the Maine revenue service (U.S. Census Bureau 2000; Maine Revenue Services 2007).

We used the statistics program PASW to analyze the statistical significance of factors on the SAI scores of municipalities.  Using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression we estimated regression coefficients with confidence intervals in a model-fit covariance matrix using Durbin-Watson residuals.

Three Example Sustainability Activity Indices (SAIs)

We examined three studies that created indices to measure at least 16 sustainability policies and activity indicators across two dozen or more municipalities: Portney (2003), Conroy (2009), and Lubell (2009).  Each study helped us to gain insight into the number of indicators used to measure municipal activity, the weight assigned to each indicator, the method used for data collection, and the number and size of municipalities measured.

Active U.S. Cities

Portney (2003) was the first to communicate the need for a city sustainability index to “capture in some appropriate way all the various dimensions of sustainability.”  He measured the “seriousness” with which 24 highly active cities addressed sustainability by measuring the presence of 50 sustainability initiatives in established plans or programs.  Each indicator had a score of 0 or 1 based on whether or not the initiative was included in plans for a maximum score of 50.  Cities in the study were limited to those who had implemented sustainability programs as a matter of public policy by January 1, 2000.  For this reason, Portney was able to collect most of his data from these well-documented and available programs and plans (Portney 2003).

Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio

Conroy (2009) studied the adoption of sustainability initiatives in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio.  He constructed an SAI for communities with populations between 2,000 and 1 million residents to determine what sustainability-related activities were adopted.  Conroy created a survey asking for organizational information and sustainability activity information on 16 different activities.  The survey was sent to 975 community planning directors; 436 were returned.  The SAI was based on the level of implementation of the 16 different activities.  Each activity could receive a score from 0 (no response/not performed) to 3 (activities in planning stage) for a maximum SAI score of 48 (Conroy and Iqbal 2009).

California’s Central Valley

Lubell (2009) studied the adoption of sustainability scores in cities of California’s Central Valley.  Lubell created an index of sustainability activity for these communities with populations between 432 to 427,652 residents.  Lubell identified 50 different sustainability policies with a weight of 0 (not present) or 1 (present) for a maximum score of 50.  The research team collected data from 100 city general plans, municipal codes, official city websites, other web-based sources, and state-level databases for 11 policies. This was followed with email and telephone surveys of senior planning and development officials in each city (Lubell et al. 2009).

Maine’s First SAI

Our proposed Maine SAI measures the general activity of a municipality around sustainability issues; in other words, it serves to gauge to what degree of seriousness municipalities are addressing sustainability.  The SAI makes no claim of measuring the actual sustainability of a municipality.  For example, the SAI measures whether or not a local government has signed a commitment to reduce its energy use, but does not measure the energy use per capita.  This approach is useful because sustainability programs are relatively new and have yet to have had measurable ‘sustainability’ impacts on a community.

We measured sustainability activity (SAI score = 0.1) in 476 of 489 incorporated municipalities.  In our statistical analysis we omitted municipalities with a SAI score = 0.1 in order to increase the accuracy of results.

In addition, we coded a ‘zero’ numerical value into a ‘missing’ value for the following factors: municipal tax commitment, household median income, and % population with a college education.  We omitted the following number of local governments from independent analysis due to this method: 33 for municipal tax commitment, 6 for household median income, and 26 for % population with a college education.

SAI Indicators

We identified four variables in both the energy and recycling indices in order to measure potential differences in sustainability activity among different municipalities (Table 4.2). 

Table 4.2 The eight indicators composing the Maine SAI.





Energy Committee (Website)



Maine Partners for Cool Communities



Governor's Carbon Challenge



ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability



# Materials Recycled



Recycling Ordinance



Recycling Committee (SPO)



Recycling Committee (Website)


The Energy Activity Index

The energy index accounted for four of eight total possible SAI points (Table 4.2).  One possible point for indicator (1) was awarded to municipalities with an energy committee listed on their official municipal website.  Municipalities were awarded one possible point for participating in any of the climate change commitments, labeled indicators (2), (3), and (4) (Table 4.2).  Although commitments are specifically targeted towards municipal climate change reductions, each focuses efforts towards reducing fossil fuel based energy use as a means for achieving these goals.  Commitments indicate energy activity in local government because signatories have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or pay money to receive technical assistance in reducing climate-changing emissions from energy use.  We obtained lists of program participants from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Maine Partners for Cool Communities (MPCC), and ICLEI---Local Governments for Sustainability (Table 4.3).

Table 4.3 Common climate change emission and energy use reduction commitments in Maine (ICLEI USA 2009; Maine Department of Environmental Protection 2009; Maine Partners for Cool Communities 2009).

Indicator Title

Maine Partners for Cool Communities (MPCC)

Maine Governor's Carbon Challenge (MGCC)

Cities for Climate Protection (CCP)


Closest Office

Portland, ME

Augusta, ME

Boston, MA

Organization(s) Responsible

American Lung Association of Maine; Maine Council of Churches;  Physicians for Social Responsibility of Maine; Sierra Club - Maine Chapter

Maine Department of Environmental Protection: Office of Innovation

ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability

Greenhouse Gas Reduction (GHG) Target

7% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020

10% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020


Enforcement (Indicator of Commitment)

Provide information on activity; only 23 of 29 partners have signed GHG reduction target

Must submit bi-annual greenhouse gas inventory to indicate progress

$600 Annual Membership Fee


Recognition; technical support; information sharing and networking

Recognition; technical support; information sharing and networking

Technical support; information sharing and networking; GHG inventory software; research publications

The Recycling Activity Index

The recycling activity index accounted for four of eight total possible SAI points (Table 4.2).  Indicators (5), (6), and (7) were scored using data collected from the Maine State Planning Office (SPO).  One possible point for indicator (5) was awarded to municipalities that had 18 out of 18 total possible number of recycling options (e.g., cans, newspaper, and cardboard).  Towns that recycled less than 18 types of materials were scored accordingly. For example, a town that recycled nine different materials received one half a point.  One possible point for indicator (6) was offered to municipalities with a municipal recycling ordinance that sets some regulations around waste disposal and recycling.  One point for indicator (7) was awarded to municipalities with a recycling committee listed by the SPO.  One possible point for indicator (8) was awarded to municipalities with a recycling committee listed on their official municipal website.

Potential Influences on SAI Scores

Conroy (2009) found a number of factors to significantly influence SAI scores, including community population size, planner’s familiarity with the concept of sustainability, discussion of the concept by planning staff, and having activities with sustainability as a goal (Conroy and Iqbal 2009).  Lubell (2009) found that sustainable policies are more likely to occur in cities that are larger, more populous, more financially independent, more socioeconomically advantaged, and that have higher stores of intellectual capital (Lubell et al. 2009).

Statistical and case studies specific to Maine municipal climate change and recycling activity found important influencing factors to include institutional capacity of municipalities and demographic factors such as population size, median household income, and percent of population with a bachelor’s degree or higher (Miller 2009; Taatjes 2009).

Four Factors Potentially Influencing the Maine SAI

We examined four potential influences on SAI scores: municipal tax revenue (total dollars per municipality), % of population aged over 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, median household income (dollars per household), and proximity to a college or university (number of colleges or universities within ten km).


The growth of municipal level sustainability initiatives in recent years has its roots in modern environmental policy and is influenced by several federal laws.

Shifts in Federal Environmental Policy Approaches

The Brundtland Report evolved out of an existing awareness of the impacts of world economic activity on society and the environment.  A large amount of natural resources were required to meet an exponential expansion in economic growth, especially after the industrialization era of World War II (Pinderhughes 2004).  This economic expansion changed the political climate and raised awareness of environmental degradation, prompting the passing of substantial environmental regulations in the 1970s.  During that decade, the U.S. Congress passed such influential legislation as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act.  Each of these laws targeted environmental concerns using a rigid, top-down approach (Fiorino 2006).  However, by linking public health with conservation, these new regulations transformed each citizen into a stakeholder in the environment’s well being (John 1994). 

These federal regulations achieved some major successes.  The Clean Air Act led to a 98% reduction in lead emissions between 1970 and 1995, as well as the improved air quality in most metropolitan areas (Mazmanian and Kraft 1999).  Enforcement of the Clean Water Act has also resulted in improved water quality in many areas of the U.S. (John 1994). 

The 1970s was followed by a more decentralized approach to federal policies with the Reagan administration.  Called the “New Federalism”, this era prompted Congress to attempt to shift power towards state and local governments.  Consequently, Congress delegated responsibility to state and municipalities for implementing and enforcing most of the EPA’s standards, but neglected to provide the funding necessary to meet compliance (Miller 2009). 

A shift in responsibility of environmental regulation from the federal to state level continued in the 1990s.  However, not all of these efforts were successful because some resulted in poor enforcement due to limited capacities of state governments.

The Bush administration was not a dedicated supporter of strong federal environmental policies.  As a result, many states and cities adapted more stringent environmental regulations to address perceived federal inaction. California, for example, spurred on the movement of statewide greenhouse gas control and clean energy strategies by enacting a law in June 2002 that required reduced greenhouse gas emissions of all passenger vehicles sold in the state by 2009.  Since the state’s Air Resources Board implementing these regulations predated the U.S. EPA, it could set its own, more stringent air quality regulations.  By fall 2007, seventeen other states had adopted the Californian standards (Miller 2009).

The Clinton administration’s National Science and Technology Council’s report entitled Bridge to a Sustainable Future acknowledges the importance of local governments in the transition towards sustainability by noting, “We must make choices today that increase the sustainability and desirability of our cities, towns, and rural areas if we are to preserve our natural environment and build a strong domestic economy” (Portney 2005).  More recent legislation such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 reflects a different environmental regulation approach, with the allocation of $61.3 billion for energy related programs, such as state and local government investment in energy efficiency, weatherization of homes, and the purchasing of more energy efficient vehicles for state and local governments (H.R. 1 2009). 

Examples of Local Solutions

On February, 16, 2006, the same day scheduled for the meeting for the Kyoto Protocol, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched a campaign to encourage cities to achieve the goals of the Kyoto Protocol within their respective communities.  Seven hundred and fifty mayors representing a quarter of the nation’s population signed the agreement by the end of 2007.  This accomplishment demonstrates the widespread interest among local communities to establish initiatives and programs that target sustainability and perform to specific needs.

For example, in Pittsburg, PA the Green Neighborhood Initiative, managed by a local non-profit, educates homeowners in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods in ways to reduce energy, water, and resource use to increase household income and spur neighborhood development (Mazmanian and Kraft 1999). 

Further examples include Boulder, CO’s pioneering “climate tax” on electricity use, as well as Los Angeles, CA’s Million Trees LA initiative, which requires the city (in cooperation with community groups, businesses and individuals) to plant one million trees within the city bounds (Mazmanian and Kraft 1999). 

Many cities have also employed land-use policies that reduce sprawl, preserve open space, and create walkable communities, promoting alternative transportation and the prioritization of energy efficiency in building codes (Newman and Kentworthy 1999). 

Portland, ME has created the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan, targeting a mixed-use zoning approach that allows commercial fishing uses to merge with non-marine uses, such as retail, restaurant, and residential.  This innovative approach creates jobs within walking distance of homes and services, helping to increase tax revenues used to protect and maintain the built infrastructure and environment of Portland’s peninsula (Portland Maine's Planning & Urban Development Department).  The City of Portland also upgraded their Metro bus system to run on clean burning natural gas in 2006.  Using buses powered by natural gas contributes to improved air quality and reduces car dependence (Efficiency Maine).

Maine Laws


Energy efficiency and renewable energy are both important issues for Maine municipal governments, which spend approximately 5% of their budgets on energy expenditures.  Maine state laws have targeted energy efficiency and renewable energy by creating renewable portfolio requirements, establishing the Maine Energy Conservation Board, and creating the Efficiency Maine Trust (Table 4.4).

Table 4.4 Relevant Maine laws encouraging energy efficiency and renewable energy

State Law




Renewable Portfolio Standards


Set a standard that 30% of energy generation sold in Maine be from renewable sources

(MRS Title 35-A. Chapter 32. §3210 1999)

Maine Energy Conservation Board


Established the Maine Energy Conservation Board

(MRS Title 35-a. §10007 2007)

An Act Regarding Maine’s Energy Future


Created the Efficiency Maine Trust to coordinate residential, commercial, industrial, and municipal energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts

(LD 1485 2009)

Municipal energy conservation efforts have also received financial support from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in the form of Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants.  Maine municipalities were asked to submit applications for $5.75 million in funds to subsidize energy conservation planning and projects (Maine Public Utlitities Commission 2009).  This funding is an example of the increasing salience of energy and other sustainability issues now posed to receive federal financial support through local governments.


Waste and recycling issues have historically been dealt with at the local level, although state laws offer some guidance on recycling issues (Table 4.5).  The state prioritizes recycling after waste reduction and reuse, and has stated goals to increase recycling as a means to reduce municipal solid waste (MSW) generation. The state tracks progress by requiring municipalities to report MSW and recycling activity.

Table 4.5 Relevant Maine laws encouraging waste reduction and recycling

State Law




Solid Waste Management Hierarchy


Establishes solid waste hierarchy of reduction as guiding principle in statewide, regional, and local planning.

(MRS Title 38 Chapter 24 § 2133 1995)

Solid Waste Generation and Disposal Capacity Report


Report required by Jan 1 2008 and annually thereafter

(MRS Title 38 Chapter 24  § 2124-A 1995)

State Goals


Reduce MSW tonnage 5% biennially starting 2007

(MRS Title 38 Chapter 24 § 2132 1995)

Municipal Recycling


Municipalities must make reasonable progress towards state goal; the state can offer funding to support these initiatives

(MRS Title 38 Chapter 24 § 2133 1995)



The Maine SAI provides a framework through which municipalities can effectively approach sustainability issues---and one from which they can measure progress and adjust efforts accordingly.  Stakeholders in the SAI and local government sustainability include a number of key constituents, including those who directly benefit from reduced sustainability costs and risks (i.e., communities and municipalities). Beneficiaries also include those with responsibility, authority, and/or stated interest in producing a more economically prosperous, environmentally resilient, and socially equitable society (i.e., governments, government agencies, institutions, philanthropists, and nonprofits).


Residents, business, and industry are the constituents most directly impacted by a municipality’s activity (or lack thereof) to address sustainability issues.  A progressive municipality may generate longer-term plans to incorporate diverse interests to mitigate potential risks from sustainability problems.  A forward-looking local government may also help bring funding and direct assistance to communities from federal, state, and local government assistance programs to help reduce the costs of sustainability.   In contrast, an inactive municipality can pass the costs and risks of poor planning and unreconciled conflicts over environmental, economic, and social concerns onto its constituents.

Local Governments

Municipal governments that score highly on the SAI are more likely to plan effectively to mitigate costs and risks from sustainability inaction. Governments that begin to develop in-house capacity to deal with sustainability issues and actively seek grant funding will be well positioned for an increasingly large flow of sustainability-assistance dollars from the state and federal level.  Local government elected officials and staff that show they are proactively addressing sustainability issues will receive less future criticism and pressure for action from citizens. Active local governments that can most efficiently help mitigate sustainability costs through planning, financing mechanisms, and other strategic approaches can help achieve higher tax revenues through increased economic growth by creating favorable conditions for residences and businesses.

Organizations with Stated Sustainability Goals

Governments, institutions, philanthropists, and non-profits with stated goals that include principles of sustainability are interested in the SAI as a framework for issues and a mechanism for encouraging progress on these goals.  A well-designed SAI may serve as a mechanism to consolidate efforts and resources from these stakeholders to focus on achieving a common set of sustainability goals. 

State of Topic

Sustainability Activity Indices

An SAI can serve as a useful tool in assessing progress and determining effective ways to increase sustainability activity in municipalities.  To our knowledge, there is no commonly agreed upon ranking of the sustainability of different towns and cities in any U.S. state.  Some studies have created an SAI and applied it to U.S. communities, but never to Maine.  The College Sustainability Report Card is one good example of a sustainability index that may help assess an organization’s seriousness in addressing sustainability (Sustainable Endowments Institute 2009).

Research into Maine Municipal Energy and Recycling Responses

Various studies illustrate how Maine municipalities are addressing energy and recycling issues using case studies and limited statistics (Burt and Saxe 2008; Boyd 2009; Taatjes 2009).  One study applied statistics to analyze the influence of various demographic and policy factors on recycling rates in Maine (Miller 2009).  The University of New Hampshire currently has a research team focused on inventorying New England local municipal responses to energy and climate change issues (VanDeveer 2009). 

Energy Use Trends

Maine has continuously, if sporadically, increased its overall energy use and peak energy demand.  Energy prices have risen over the previous two decades (Colby Environmental Policy Group 2008).  Maine consumed 458 trillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy in 2006, approximately 0.5% of total U.S. energy demand (Baldacci and Kerry 2009).

Waste Generation and Recycling Trends

Maine citizens and businesses generated over 2 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2007 (State Planning Office 2009).  Therefore, Maine generates about 8.8 pounds of MSW per person per day, higher than the national average of 4.6 pounds of MSW per person per day.  In 2007 Maine citizens and businesses recycled 35% of waste, or over 700,000 tons of recyclables. The Maine recycling rate is roughly equal with the national average of 33% (U.S. EPA 2008).  State-wide recycling rates have remained stable for the previous decade after peaking at 42% in 1997 (Miller 2009).

Climate Change Commitment Trends

When Portland joined ICLEI in 2,000 they were the first Maine community to agree to a climate change commitment.  No additional municipality indicated commitment in until 2004. Currently, 35 different municipalities have signed at least one commitment.  In spite of recent increases in activity, less than one in ten local Maine governments have agreed to a climate change commitment.


Measuring Maine Municipal Sustainability Activity

SAI Score Review

The mean SAI score was 1.56 (SD ± 1.05) out of 8 possible points. Only 4% or 21 of 476 measured Maine municipalities had an SAI score greater than or equal to 4 (Figure 4.3). According to our SAI measurements, Maine municipalities are not seriously addressing energy and recycling issues.

Figure 4.3 SAI score frequency for measured Maine municipalities

Energy SAI Score Review

The mean energy SAI score was 0.14 (SD ± 0.53) out of 4 possible points.  Only 7%, or 35 of 476 measured municipalities scored at least one point on the energy SAI. Only one local government scored the maximum four points on the energy SAI (Figure 4.4).  This suggests that very few municipalities are active on energy issues according to the four energy indicators chosen for this study. 

Figure 4.4 The energy SAI score for measured Maine municipalities

Two factors likely contribute to low energy SAI scores.  First, scoring an energy SAI point requires more staff time, buy-in, and public commitment than does scoring a recycling SAI point. Second, energy efficiency and conservation is a recently emerging issue for local governments, meaning there has been more time for local governments to become active on recycling issues.

Seventeen municipalities had an energy committee listed on their official municipal website (Websites accessed October 2009).  To score a point for indicator (1), a municipality must have created and actively maintained an official local government website. There were two main limitations to this indicator.  First, the majority of local governments with a population less than 5,000 people did not have a website or did not appear to update it frequently.  This may help account for energy SAI scores biased towards municipalities with larger budgets.   Second, we observed municipalities with known active energy committees who did not list the committee on their website. These two factors illustrate how the energy SAI may measure a lower level of activity than is actually the case.

Twenty-nine municipalities were part of Maine Partners for Cool Communities; ten were part of the Governor’s Carbon Challenge; and nine were part of ICLEI---Local Governments for Sustainability.  To score a point for indicators (2), (3), and (4), a municipality must have signed a climate change commitment from one of the three aforementioned organizations (Table 4.3).  Scores were accurate for these indicators since membership information is frequently updated on each organizations’ website. 

Recycling SAI Score Review

The mean recycling SAI score was 1.72 (SD ± 0.89) out of 4 possible points.  The mean recycling SAI score is 12 times higher than the mean energy score.  The most frequent recycling SAI scores fell in the range between one to two points (Figure 4.5).  This suggests that many municipalities are active on recycling issues according to the four recycling indicators chosen for this study.

Figure 4.5 The recycling SAI score for measured Maine municipalities

Two factors likely contribute to high recycling SAI scores.  First, scoring a recycling SAI point requires less serious commitment than scoring an energy SAI point.  Second, recycling has long been recognized as an important issue in Maine.  Municipalities have received substantial financial and technical support from federal and state grants since the solid waste management hierarchy was established two decades ago (Lee 2009).

Recycling SAI scores may also be higher than energy SAI scores because all Maine municipalities are required to report to the SPO on recycling activity, thus reducing gaps in the data.

Recycling SAI scores may represent higher than actual municipal recycling activity.  The method we used to interpret Maine State Planning Office (SPO) data overemphasizes the level to which local governments are responsible for recycling.  Our method assumes the policies of a regional program are representative of local activity.  This skews results to favor municipalities that are part of collaborative joint recycling programs and reduces correlation between recycling SAI scores and local efforts.

We gathered SPO data for indicator (5) from a 2004 report on the number of types of recycling options available per municipality.  The SPO expressed concerns with the accuracy and timeliness of data (Maine State Planning Office 2006).  The majority of communities recycled more than nine of eighteen material types.

A total of 252 and 285 municipalities had a SPO listed recycling ordinance and recycling committee, respectively.  A majority of these municipalities were listed as having an ordinance or committee by assuming that by participating in a regional program they had a local ordinance or committee.  The SPO provided data for indicators (6) and (7) from a report on 2006 SPO listed recycling ordinances and recycling committees, respectively (Maine State Planning Office 2009; Maine State Planning Office 2009).

We found that 49 municipalities had a recycling committee listed on an official municipal website, five times less than the number listed by the SPO. Indicator (8) may have similar data quality issues to website-listed energy committees for indicator (1). 

Geographic Distribution of SAI Scores

In spite of limitations to data quality and consistency, there are interesting patterns evident in SAI scores when spatially mapped using GIS (Figure 4.6).  High SAI scores are concentrated in southern coastal municipalities.  The SAI shows little sustainability activity in eastern or northern Maine.

Figure 4.6 SAI scores by municipality show geographic concentration of the most active municipalities along the southern coast.  The Unorganized Territory is not included in this study and therefore does not receive an SAI score.

Factors Influencing SAI Scores

We independently examined the influence of four different factors, or variables, on SAI scores (Table 4.6).  We tested for and found normality in all four factors, setting the stage for further statistical analysis.  The p value of each factor = 0.001, meaning the regression line equation was highly significant.  The adjusted R2 accounts for variation in index scores explained by the factors we independently examine.   If a factor achieved the maximum R2value, 1, then 100% of index score variation can be explained by the independently examined factor.

Table 4.6 Results of statistical analysis of influence of four factors on SAI scores


Municipal Tax Revenue ($)

College Proximity (Number = 10km)

% of Pop with B.A.

Median HH Income ($)






Adjusted R2






6.81 E -8



4.04 E -5
















Municipal Tax Revenue

Independent analysis showed that municipal revenue explained 32% of variance in SAI scores. This confirms other studies that indicate municipalities with higher budgets can hire additional staff to address sustainability issues (e.g., Allen 2009 and Conroy 2009).  The relationship may help explain why the City of Portland, which has the highest budget of any Maine local government, scored highest on the SAI index. 

The mean municipal budget for Maine municipalities is only $4.0 million (SD ± $8.8 million).  Therefore, a large number of Maine municipalities with small budgets may require outside assistance to overcome a lack of local capacity to act on sustainability issues (e.g., Taatjes 2009).

Figure 4.7 Spatial distribution showing a correlation between high SAI scores and  high municipal tax commitments.

College Proximity

Independent analysis showed that the proximity of colleges and universities within a 10 km buffer explained 6% of variance in SAI scores.  While there are no studies proving the statistical significance of this factor, anecdotal evidence suggests colleges may influence local sustainability.  For example, the City of Waterville ranks 5th in the SAI routinely solicits sustainability consultation from three proximate colleges.  Statewide training programs such as the College Intern Sustainability Training Institute may increase the ability of post secondary institutions to enhance local government sustainability efforts.

Socioeconomic Factors

Independent analysis showed that the % of population over 25 with a bachelors degree explained 13% of variance in SAI scores.  Independent analysis showed that median household incomes explained 11% of variance in SAI scores.  This confirms other studies that indicate more educated communities may be more knowledgeable about the importance of sustainability issues, and that more affluent communities may be more willing to allocate resources to these issues (e.g., Miller 2009).  These relationships may help explain why the 3rd most affluent and 6th most college educated community, the Town of Yarmouth, ranks 2nd in the SAI.

Strengthening the SAI Index

Strengthening the SAI will require overcoming current limitations in measurement and analysis. 

Measurement is limited in a number of ways:

1)   Narrow range of indicators. The SAI measured sustainability in only two areas: energy and recycling.  Other index studies examine at least 16 other indicators in assessing local sustainability activity (Saha 2009).  The SAI could also include indicators measuring activity on: building energy policy, community gardening, public transportation, sustainable procurement, and water quality.

2)    Data gaps between local governments.  We conducted surveys of municipal government websites to quantify energy and recycling committees and found that most local governments do not have an official website. This skews information about energy and recycling committees, especially for the smaller towns that do not have resources to create and update a website.  We also used SPO data that was compiled on a regional scale for many local governments.  Regional activity is not equivalent to activity of distinct units of local government, and therefore represents limited data availability across all local governments. 

3)    Lapsed relevancy of data. Information from the SPO was often not time-relevant, including data from 2004 quantifying the number of recycling material types per municipality.  This information is out of date and no longer representative of the recycling programs of many Maine municipalities.  For example, thirty municipalities in the greater Portland area now offer single stream recycling through the Ecomaine single-stream recycling facility created in 2006 (EcoMaine 2009). 

4)   Limited comparability of indicators.  Two indicators can demonstrate very different levels of activity from a municipality.  For example, commitment to ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability requires annual membership fees and indicates serious commitment of local officials to address energy efficiency.  Conversely, a recycling ordinance may not be enforced or may have been enacted in the distant past.

5)   Lack of stakeholder engagement in defining indicators.  Failure to engage a diverse range of stakeholders may lead to the establishment of arbitrary, ineffective indicators.

Analysis is also limited in a number of ways:

1)   Limited statistical sophistication. We used simple linear regressions to independently analyze the influence of factors on SAI scores.  Factors that may be indicators of the same effects, like population size and municipal budgets, may explain the same variance in SAI scores without more rigorous methods of testing.

2)   Narrow range of factors.  We statistically analyzed only four factors of at least ten factors studies proved to influence may influence SAI scores (e.g., Lowell 2009).

3)    Low data transparency.  Outside of the information in this report, our data will not be easily and anonymously accessible for public review.


Using information from the Maine SAI analysis, existing literature, and conversations with Maine sustainability experts, we constructed three scenarios that help illustrate potential changes to local government sustainability activity.

In general, scenarios may be explained by positive relationships between the following factors: fiscal health of government; effectiveness of institutional support; quality of funding assistance; prevalence of local leadership; salience of sustainability issues; amount of citizen activism; diffusion of successful sustainability models; and government official education about sustainability.  For example, declining activity levels may be partially explained by declining municipal budgets, declining salience of sustainability issues, or declining levels of local leadership, among other listed factors.

Dropping the Ball: Municipal Sustainability Activity Fades

In this scenario, local government activity decreases.  For example, an economic recession or population decline causes a drop in municipal budgets, which forces local governments to focus solely on maintaining essential services such as education, infrastructure, and public safety.

Path of Least Resistance: Patchy Increases in Activity

In this scenario, the current trend of piecemeal improvements in local government activity continues.  For example, federal leadership through energy efficiency grants spurs short term local government activity, but only incremental gains remain after the two year funding period lapses.

Leading the Charge: Municipal Activity Drives State Progress

In this scenario, local government activity expands, driving state responses to sustainability issues.  For example, the creation of effective programs linking college capacity to address sustainability issues with the decision-making authority of municipal governments helps excite local government innovation.


We found that local government sustainability action is important for the continued economic, environmental, and social health of Maine communities, especially in light of state and federal inaction.   We have four main conclusions:

First, studies have constructed Sustainability Activity Indices (SAIs) for various communities in the U.S., but, to our knowledge, never for Maine.  The simple SAI developed in this study is a useful tool to measure and analyze Maine local government activity.  For example, the SAI can target inactive local governments to effectively support increased local government sustainability activity. The index can also help to explain factors that may influence local activity levels.  By beginning to study the effects of different factors that explain activity, the SAI can increase the effectiveness of policies designed to support local government sustainability. 

Second, SAI scores indicate that local Maine governments have low levels of sustainability activity, with a mean SAI score of 1.56 (SD ± 1.05) out of 8 total possible points.  Recycling SAI scores were higher than energy SAI scores, due in part to the relatively recent emphasis on addressing energy issues locally.

Third, the accuracy and usefulness of our prototype SAI was limited by our methods.  These limitations include a narrow range of indicators, gaps in indicator data, and uncertainty whether our variables are accurate measures of sustainability. 

Fourth, a well-designed SAI can help focus local activity by providing clarity around how to address complex and often overwhelming sustainability issues.


We recommend a number of actions to increase local Maine government sustainability.  The State of Maine should:

1.   Create a Sustainability Activity Index (SAI), published annually in the form of the “Maine Local Government Sustainability Report Card.”

2.   Clearly designate authority to a government agency or non-governmental organization to engage relevant stakeholders to outline procedures for Report Card data collection and analysis.

3.   Focus the stakeholder group towards creating an effective, robust, relevant, and transparent Report Card.  Data collection should gather quality, consistent, timely, and relevant data. Analysis should examine the influence of a wide array of factors on Report Card scores, as well as to include advanced statistical analysis methods including multivariate regression.

4.   Use Report Card measurement and analysis to effectively increase local government sustainability activity.  For example, create programs to link relevant college and university resources with local governments to create additional capacity to address municipal sustainability issues.

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