LEWISTON — A man driving a pickup on a recent Friday pulled up to the huge recycling bin at the Lewiston Solid Waste Facility on River Road. He got out of his truck and tossed out a large black trash bag, despite a posted sign announcing plastic bags are not allowed.
He dashed back in his truck and drove off before Solid Waste Superintendent Rob Stalford, who was standing nearby, had a chance to tell the man trash and plastic bags are not allowed.
“Some of them get very hostile,” Stalford said. “I’ve heard this more times than I can remember: ‘I pay my taxes. If you don’t like the way I’m doing it, you do it.’”
The problem, say Stalford and other experts, is that attitude — “I don’t want to deal with my waste, so you deal with it” — is creating a crisis that is raising costs for all taxpayers.
People who throw their trash and other nonrecyclables into recycling bins are “contaminating” the value of the materials that can be recycled, raising town removal costs and prompting buyers of recyclables to stop buying because they’re fed up with dealing with trash.
The result, say experts: Nationally and in Maine, many municipalities are recycling less, unable to find markets for recyclables and facing rising costs for their programs. A few Maine towns, including Manchester and Gouldsboro, have made headlines because they’ve ended recycling. Other towns are rethinking single-stream recycling and are asking residents to go back to sorting their recyclables.
Looking at the black trash bag and other trash bags arriving at the waste facility, Stalford said there could be items in those bags that are recyclable. “But the bags are not going to be opened and the contents emptied out. They will end up in the landfill,” he said.
Because people are throwing trash and nonrecyclables into recycling bins, items placed in those bins have to get dumped at the recycling building next door and poured out on the “pick line.” There, anything that’s not recyclable gets picked out by hired workers “and thrown out as trash.”
“This isn’t a feel-good thing,” Stalford said. “This is business. When you don’t meet specifications for the (recycling) market, it’s junk. Junk goes to a landfill or incinerator.”
CHINA STOPPED TAKING PAPER, PLASTIC
The market for recycled materials is down because China cut back on what it takes, said Vic Horton of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, a nonprofit recycling broker for 160 Maine communities from Newport to Mexico to Machias. “They stopped taking a lot of everything, from mixed paper to box board,”
China said it stopped taking materials from America because the recyclables were often highly contaminated with trash. Without a healthy market, the price for recycled materials went down, Horton said
Now, instead of getting paid for mixed paper, municipal recycling programs have to pay to get rid of it. The same with some plastics.
“We are inundated with tons and tons of paper,” Horton said. “And we used to ship tons and tons of lower-grade 3-7 plastics. Once China shut us off, we have very few close places to process the material.”
Not all materials have lost value, Horton said. Recycled higher-grade plastics, including milk jugs and metal cans have held their value. “Office paper is sky-high,” he said.
But mixed paper is the biggest material in recycling bins, often making up half, Horton said, and the market for it has crashed.
Experts say single-sort recycling, which is the method used in Lewiston, Auburn and many other Maine municipalities, has contributed to consumers’ sloppy recycling habits and the resulting contamination that’s hurting the entire recyclables industry.
On one hand, the ease of no longer sorting newspapers from cans and glass jars encourages more recycling. On the other hand, it’s easier to recycle incorrectly. Or to just plain not care. Local waste disposal workers have found everything from appliances to electronic parts and full bags of trash in recycling bins. (See story on Page B1 about what to recycle and what not to recycle.)
COSTS RISING IN TURNER, ELSEWHERE
In Turner, the future of recycling is an ongoing budget topic, said Town Manager Kurt Schaub. The town’s solid waste budget saw the largest increase this year in recent memory, “which is completely the result of the cost of recycling,” he said.
Turner started single-sort recycling three years ago. Since then, the worldwide market has changed, he said.
“What was costing us $20 a ton (to sell to a recycler) is now $120 a ton, which is 60 percent more expensive than if the material was delivered to an incinerator,” Schaub said. It cost Turner $82 a ton to give its waste to the Mid Maine Waste Action Corp. in Auburn, which generates electricity from the process.
Turner has not stopped recycling, yet, Schaub said. “The reason is an ethical one. Residents would be very upset. Environmentally, they want to do the right thing. But if it’s cost-prohibitive, it’s hard to look away.”
MMWAC Executive Director John King said he’s fielded multiple calls from town managers who have a glut of mixed paper and cardboard that’s getting expensive to recycle. They’ve asked him what it would cost to bring it to MMWAC. “They say, ‘It’s political suicide’ (to consider burning it instead of recycling it),” King said, “but town budgets are tight.”
In Lewiston, recycling costs are not going up at the moment because of a deal the city has with Casella Waste Systems, which takes Lewiston’s recyclables for nothing until 2026, in exchange for Casella using Lewiston land for its recycling facility.
City Manager Ed Barrett said he recognizes Casella’s costs are going up. Casella has asked Lewiston if it would change the contract given the changing market. “We said no,” said Barrett, who noted the city realizes it has a sweet deal and that costs are rising. “We’re watching this closely.”
Recycling rates in Lewiston-Auburn are among the lowest in Maine.
Lewiston’s recycling rate by residents is 11 percent, but the actual percentage is lower, according to Stalford, because a municipality’s recycling rate doesn’t count what’s later pulled out as contaminated.
Auburn’s recycling rate is 8 percent, according to the city.
Auburn’s recycling is also handled by Casella. So far Auburn’s recycling costs have not gone up, but the city is expecting costs will rise, Public Works Director Dan Goyette said.
TOO MUCH ‘WISH-CYCLING’
Casella takes recyclables for Lewiston-Auburn, Biddeford and a number of other towns, Casella spokeswoman Rachel Washburn said.
Three years ago Casella took recycling materials without charging a tipping fee. Now towns and cities must pay a disposal fee of between $75 and $125 a ton for recyclables at Casella because of the higher costs of dealing with contamination and shrinking markets, Washburn said.
Regarding contamination, Washburn said too many people “wish-cycle,” meaning they put things in the recycle bin that they hope can be recycled.
Some may have good intentions or don’t understand that things including plastic bags, plastic pipes, lawn chairs, Styrofoam cups, packing materials and glass window panes aren’t recyclable. When those items go in recycle bins, “what that does is raise our costs,” Washburn said. “We have to pull it out.”
At ecomaine, a Portland-based nonprofit waste handler, the changing market and increased costs mean solid waste fees will rise from $70.50 to $73 a ton in July, spokesman Matt Grondin said.
Ecomaine’s costs have risen as it has had to pay for more workers at its recycling facility to pick waste out of recycling bins, which has included bags of trash, propane tanks and computers, Grondin said.
In May, ecomaine, which incinerates solid waste and recycles for 73 towns and cities comprising about 400,000 Mainers, stepped up enforcement, inspecting loads as they come in and assessing fees on contaminated materials. The more stuff that can’t be recycled, the higher the fee.
As an example, Grondin said, if a load of recyclables is about 10 percent non-recyclable materials, the sender is charged an extra $35 a ton. That’s starting to encourage cleaner loads, he said.
RECYCLING EDUCATION NEEDED
Meanwhile ecomaine has increased education, getting the word out to consumers about what can and can’t be recycled.
Education is needed in Lewiston, said Marie Murphy, a veteran city worker who tends the gatehouse at the Solid Waste Facility on River Road.
When Lewiston’s recycling facility opened in 1991, “our superintendent went to the Rotary, to businesses, to the chamber, to all the schools to educate people” about recycling, Murphy said.
In recent years the city hasn’t done any education. “There’s never any money in the budget for that,” she said.
When Lewiston started zero-sorting in 2011, “people got lazy: ‘Just throw it all in and call it good,'” Murphy observed.
People need to understand what can and can’t be recycled, she said. Often something that’s not recyclable locally, like a Styrofoam meat tray, has a recycling number on it. That leads many to assume it’s fine to throw it in the bin.
“But it’s not recyclable here,” Murphy said. “You need to educate the people.”
Another part of the problem is that too many people think recycling is free, said Rebecca Secrest, environmental community planner with the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments. “It was never free,” she said. “It always cost something.”
Despite the market, many people want to recycle, and understand that recycling is better for the environment, uses fewer raw materials and doesn’t contribute to climate change, Secrest said.
“Recycling is still a better option than throwing it away.”
Plastic film and bags are the most problematic of the non-recyclable materials finding their way into the recycling stream, according to Maine experts. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
An ecomaine truck enters the first room of the recycling plant and is met by the first inspector in the chain. (Andree Kehn/Sun journal)
Ecomaine employees dump a load of recycling onto a conveyor belt so that contaminants can be manually removed. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Compressed and bundled steel after the sorting process at ecomaine in Portland. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Turner has not stopped recycling yet. “The reason is an ethical one. Residents would be very upset. Environmentally, they want to do the right thing. But if it’s cost-prohibitive, it’s hard to look away.”
— Turner Town Manager Kurt Schaub
“This isn’t a feel-good thing. This is business. When you don’t meet speculations for the (recycling) market, it’s junk. Junk goes to a landfill or incinerator.”
— Lewiston Solid Waste Superintendent Rob Stalford
When Lewiston started zero sorting in 2011, “people got lazy: ‘Just throw it all in and call it good.'” Residents need to understand what can and can’t be recycled. “You need to educate the people.”
— Marie Murphy, avid recycler and Lewiston Solid Waste gatehouse attendant