Sorting Maine’s recycling options

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AUBURN — Folks in Saco think of themselves as being environmentally conscious. That’s why they recycle, says Michael Bolduc, the city’s Public Works director.

“We view ourselves as a pretty green community, environmentally responsible, and we like to do the right thing,” Bolduc said. That simple motivation pushed the town to a 30 percent recycling rate in 2008.

But nearby Gorham needed a bit more motivation to push its rate into the 40 percent range. Recycling is free to residents in Gorham, just like it is everywhere in Maine — but every other bit of trash has to be packed in a $2 bag.

“That’s when you start pushing the recycling rate up,” said Gorham Public Works Director Bob Burns. “On the one hand, it generates revenue. The bags pay for the collections and the tipping fees. But it’s also an incentive for residents. If they don’t recycle, it can get expensive.”

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Maine communities have been recycling for 31 years, and no two do it the same way. Some collect the recycling; some have the residents drop it off at transfer stations. Some sort it themselves and keep the profits and some send it out of town to be sorted.

Which method to adopt is a question the city of Auburn is asking right now. Faced with declining recycling rates across the city — ranging from zero to 30 percent, depending on the neighborhood — councilors voted to end the curbside collection program at the end of the current budget year, June 30.

They’ll replace it with something, City Manager Glenn Aho has said. But exactly what isn’t clear.

“We know this year is the last year we’re going to be able do things the way we’ve done them,” Aho said. “It gets expensive next year, and that’s what we have to prepare for.”

Both Auburn and Lewiston offer simple, 1990s-style curbside recycling programs. Residents leave their recycling at the curb, where it’s collected and sorted into bins on specialized trucks. It’s taken to a storage facility in Lewiston and sold when they’ve collected enough of a certain commodity and the price is right.

Recycling also affects trash collection costs. The more Auburn residents recycle, the less the city has to pay to have the rest of its solid waste burned in Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp.’s incinerator.

Last year, the city paid more than $642,000 to collect and dispose of solid waste. Less than half of that was paid in tipping fees to MMWAC. About $335,000 was paid to Pine Tree Waste to drive from street to street collecting the trash.

Aho said that’s where he expects costs to escalate.

“When we negotiated the current collection contract, they really wanted our business and they negotiated hard,” Aho said. The result was a low rate, set to expire in June 2011.

“It’s a price we’ll probably never see again,” Aho said.

In the meantime, costs for the city’s curbside recycling program have risen. Aho said the city must pay to repair or replace one of the trucks and hire another person to drive it, or budget more overtime.

“What I suggested back in February was to negotiate a new deal with a hauler for one year, and sell off our equipment,” Aho said. He had hoped to bundle a new trash collection contract  with recycling beginning in July 2011, paying one entity to do both.

Single-stream option

Auburn has many options, of which the most popular is single-stream recycling: letting residents dump all of their recycling into a single bin.

“This is an evolution,” said George MacDonald, manager of the waste management program at the Maine State Planning Office. “We’ve progressed from drop-off recycling to curbside and now communities are looking at their next options.”

Single-stream recycling has been adopted by at least 63 Maine communities. They either collect recycling curbside or provide bins at a transfer station. The unsorted recyclables are shipped to either EcoMaine in Portland or Casella Solid Waste in Massachusetts. At those facilities, materials are sorted, baled and sold on the commodities market.

It also lets people recycle more. Just about every kind of plastic can be recycled; exceptions include Styrofoam and plastic bags. Aerosol cans, phone books, juice boxes, old wrapping paper — all are recyclable, as well.

Missi Labbe, EcoMaine’s program development manager, said her company pays haulers $5 per ton for unsorted recycling.

“That’s based on the general mix of the individual waste components and the price we can get for those individual components,” Labbe said. It fluctuates monthly, depending on the commodities market.

The company spent $4 million building its sorting facility, a complicated maze of conveyor belts, wheels, glass crushers, magnets and people to sort recyclables. EcoMaine also operates an incinerator to deal with the rest of the solid waste, the kind that can’t be recycled.

They’re not the only single-sort recyclers. Tom Eldridge, Westbrook’s Public Services director, said his city has a waste collection and recycling contract with Casella Solid Waste, Pine Tree Waste’s parent company.

“We struggled with curbside recycling for years, until the rate went down to about 8 percent,” he said. “Basically, Casella gave us a really good deal. They provide a two-toter program. All the rubbish goes in one; the recycling goes in the other. They have one truck with a divider down the middle and it all goes in.”

It’s faster and efficient and it has pushed the city’s recycling rate up to an estimated 26 percent, he said. They city pays about $870,000 per year for collections.

MacDonald, of the State Planning Office, said communities that offer single-stream recycling tend to save money on collections. On average statewide, communities pay $70.25 per resident for trash collections. Communities with single-stream recycling pay $65.13.

Paying by the bag

In 53 Maine communities, people pay for trash collection, buying special bags for household waste. The bags cost between 50 cents and $2 each. That encourages people to recycle more, since recycling is free. It also helps cover the cost of the rest of the collections.

“It tends to have a big impact, because it becomes worth people’s time to put things out for recycling,” MacDonald said. “Everything that goes in the recycling bin saves them, since they don’t have to spend it on the bags.”

Trash hauling and dumping costs are about the same for those communities, about $66.90 per resident.

But the 11 communities that do both save a lot, paying $41.47 per person for trash hauling and disposal.

“Single-stream recycling is a collection method, designed to make that end more efficient,” MacDonald said. “Pay-per-throw is a way to encourage recycling and cover some costs. They’re both tools, and towns adopt them because they fit into their system and fit their community.”

It’s Auburn’s turn to figure out what fits.

“We have to set a budget, we need a plan and we need to figure out what we’re going to do,” Aho said. “But the good thing now, once we get the short term figured out, is that we have a year to come up with a plan for the future.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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