LISBON — Most people think of the contents of a trash bag as one thing: trash.
But University of Maine economics major Travis Blackmer knows many categories and sub-categories can be found in each bag.
"You have paper and plastic and organic waste; used electronics," Blackmer said.
For him and the other students on his seven-person team, those categories really matter.
The team is traveling around the state, visiting dumps, transfer stations and recycling facilities to see what Mainers throw away.
With the permission of the facility operators and the people throwing out their trash, they collect about 50 bags a day, sort the contents and weigh them.
The bags are sliced open and sorted into bins with similar materials.
"You know those Styrofoam meat things? That's a couple of different kinds," Blackmer said. "The Styrofoam goes in one bin, the plastic wrap in another and the paper inside goes in another."
It's important to get it right. That's why the bloated rat in the orange juice jug was especially difficult. The team discovered it in one of their piles.
"It had crawled into the jug and then swelled up," Blackmer said. "Plus, the orange juice inside had gone rotten."
It took the entire team to get that mess sorted out, but they did it.
"The jug went in with the plastic, the rotten juice went in the organic (pile) and the rat belonged in a category of its own," Blackmer said.
The project is part of a Maine State Planning Office-funded study to gauge Maine's solid-waste habits.
"Then we can look at recycling in each community, what works and what doesn't," Blackmer said. "Some communities have single-stream recycling; others don't, and others charge by the bag. We expect to see differences in all of those and maybe learn some ways to improve the solid-waste stream."
The group finished its southern and central Maine sites on Wednesday with a visit to the town of Lisbon's Transfer Station at 14 Capitol Ave. Blackmer said the team also visited ecomaine's recycling facility in Portland and transfer stations in Ogunquit, Paris and Norway.
They'll continue next week with stops in Belfast, Houlton and Skowhegan.
Blackmer estimated they would finish the first round of their research by the end of August. They plan a second sweep around the state in the fall.
"Summer trash is different than fall trash," Blackmer said. "If we want an accurate picture, we need to look at both times of the year."
He said the students expect to release the results of their work early next year.
"The hardest part right now is that we haven't had a chance to compile anything or go over the data," Blackmer said. "We've been on the road constantly, so we don't know what we have yet. I hope we can get some early tallies done by the end of August."