You’ve mastered paper, glass and plastic. But on this Earth Day, you’re wondering where to best ditch those old Christmas lights, antiquated cellphones, half-used paint cans, alkaline batteries and microwave. Surely not the trash. We’ve got answers.

It’s Earth Day and you’re cleaning out Grandma’s garage, because you’re a jewel like that, and you come across a single, stylin’ orthopedic shoe.

Do NOT throw it out. Someone wants that shoe.

No, really. Goodwill knows a guy.

As Maine looks to mightily improve its recycling rate — we’re hovering near 37 percent with a state goal of 50 percent by January 2021 — we offer a quick refresher of what to bring where and what has a waiting home that just might surprise you.

Like, say, that orthopedic shoe.



Great news: Your ratty can of paint has a home at Sherwin-Williams.

Paint is one of seven items covered under Maine product stewardship laws that say companies that have a hand in making an item have to have a hand in disposing of it. In the case of paint, the industry trade group American Coatings Association set up PaintCare to handle stewardship laws in eight states and the District of Columbia.

PaintCare has 110 drop-off sites in Maine, a mix of hardware stores, transfer stations and other retailers, including Sherwin-Williams in Lewiston and Auburn.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection’s latest Implementing Product Stewardship report, 109,267 gallons of latex and oil-based paint were dropped off at those locations from July 2016 to June 2017.

All of the oil-based paint got a second life as fuel; 83 percent of the latex was made into recycled-content paint, according to the report.



In 2016, the latest figures available, Mainers recycled 217,630 tons of paper, plastic, cardboard, glass and textiles, according to Carole Cifrino, who supervises the DEP’s recycling program.

Fun fact: “Almost half of that is cardboard,” she said.

That figure is down from 2015 when the state recycled 228,326 tons of the same mix, which, despite the drop, might not be entirely bad.

Some of that is due to “lightweighting,” Cifrino said, which means companies using less packaging material or lighter plastics.

Municipalities have to provide residents an outlet for that sort of recycling, she said, but outlets vary. In some places, it’s a transfer station or organized event, in others, curbside pickup. ( has an extensive recycling database searchable by zip code, which can be a good place to start.)


China is the main market for Maine’s mixed plastics and paper.

“The big shift in the recycling world this year is that China has implemented more stringent quality standards for recycled materials,” Cifrino said. “I myself am what we call an ‘apsirational recycler,’ where I’m like, ‘Even though this doesn’t have a number on it, where it’s plastic, I’ll put it in the plastics.'”

But, with China now clamping down, that doesn’t work.

“I have to tell myself when in doubt, leave it out,” she said. “If the materials are not good recyclables then we just end up with a contaminated waste stream that can’t go for recycling.”


Fluorescent bulbs are also covered by product stewardship law in Maine. Because of the mercury inside, they and their ilk — compact fluorescent or CFLs, black lights, neon lights and high intensity discharge or HID bulbs — are illegal to throw out here, according to the DEP.


The state maintains an online map of stores where you can bring those bulbs, places like Drillen True Value Hardware in Lewiston.

“We do get a lot of fluorescent bulbs,” said employee Richard Hirschmann.

Most often, someone’s bringing in a bum bulb and buying a new one. “Occasionally, someone will bring in three or four bulbs and that’s OK, too,” he said. “But we can’t take bulk bulbs.”

So don’t let them pile up, for bulk’s sake.

Many of those same stores also accept your dropped-off mercury thermostat — check before you go.

In 2016, Mainers recycled 384,586 bulbs and 5,240 mercury thermostats. High numbers, sure, but in the case of bulbs, that’s only 28.6 percent of the number that could have been recycled, a stat arrived at by calculating all of the fluorescent bulbs sold in Maine and factoring in their average lifespans, Cifrino said.



Since 2005, Mainers have recycled more than 95 million pounds of electronics — think laptops, TVs, monitors, desktop printers, game consoles and digital picture frames.

In 2016, according to the stewardship report, we recycled 8.9 pounds of electronics per person in Maine, down from 9.5 pounds in 2015, but again, that may be because electronics are getting lighter.

Companies like eWaste Recycling Solutions, which recently moved from Auburn to Lewiston, disassemble electronics for re-use manufacturing and partner with organizations like Rotary Clubs, churches and transfer stations on drop-off events. Dates and details can be found on their website.

eWaste was on site last Saturday along with the Share Center, Stratham Tire and Mobile Shredding On-Site during Community Credit Union’s annual recycling event in Auburn.

That event collected 1,945 pounds of paper, roughly 140 tires and a 70-foot trailer full of electronics, according to the credit union’s Matthew Shaw.


“At the end of the day, all of us kind of look at each other and we always think, ‘Where do some of these things come from?’, but we’re also happy that they’re going to a place that it’s going to lessen the impact on the environment,” said  Shaw.

When it comes to electronics, there’s actually a phrase for pulling out the metals from discarded products to resell them: “urban mining.” A recent study in the Environmental Science & Technology journal looked at eight Chinese recycling companies and compared the costs for extracting copper and gold that way versus extracting the metals in their raw form from the ground. The study found that extracting from traditional ore cost 13 times more than urban mining, so there’s savings and it avoids the landfill.

Per the DEP, municipalities also have to offer residents either a regular collection site or an event for electronics recycling. (Fees can apply, so ask.)

Another option for your Commodore 64: Goodwill.

Goodwill Northern New England spokeswoman Heather Steeves said donated desktops and laptops that are still in working order first have their hard drives removed and wiped to U.S. Department of Defense standards in a process that doesn’t even require turning the machine on.

“In the event we can’t wipe a hard drive, we also invented this crushing machine that drives a spike through the hard drive, killing it entirely,” said Steeves.


Add a new hard drive, and voila, it’s offered for sale through Goodwill’s GoodTech program. If unwanted tech is ancient or broken, no problem. Goodwill recycles it.

“We’ll do that responsibly and in the United States,” she said.

When it comes to phones, electronics website CNET maintains a long list of places to donate and trade-in. Poke around a bit and you may find some value to be had there.


The No. 1 question Cifrino hears in her job: Why can’t I recycle my alkaline batteries?

You can. But it’ll cost you.


Maine’s stewardship law only covers rechargeable batteries. In 2016, Mainers recycled 31,561 pounds’ worth at Call2Recycle locations like Staples, Home Depot and many local transfer stations.

That law doesn’t mandate that manufacturers pick up the cost of recycling single-use alkaline batteries, so, they don’t. (Two years ago, the Legislature looked at expanding the law for rechargeables to include alkaline, but the proposal didn’t pass.)

Head on over to Google and look instead for companies that sell alkaline battery recycling boxes with pre-paid shipping labels. You pay, you fill, you ship back.

“That box is going to cost you $60,” said Cifrino. “It’s a good-sized box — you can fit a lot of batteries in it.”

Feeling passionate about it and not quite satisfied? Tell your local legislators that you’d like to see them take the topic up again.



Goodwill’s recycling prowess extends to all sorts of things you might never guess: Unwanted Christmas lights. Electronics cords. Old eyeglasses. Single shoes. Tacky jewelry.

“Our tag line is sort of ‘Goodwill: I didn’t know you did that,'” said Steeves. “We want quality donations to help sell in the stores to give people what they need and also to make a profit so we can put those back into important programs. But a lot of people don’t know that we also do some recycling work.”

Last year, Goodwills in Maine, New Hampshire and two stores in northern Vermont resold or recycled 60 million pounds of donations, according to Steeves, up from 45 million pounds the year before.

This time of year, because of the sort of spring cleaning you’re doing in Grandma’s garage, is their donation busy season.

In the case of Christmas lights and electronics cords, they’re handed off to someone else to strip for copper. Single shoes go to someone who matches look-alikes and sells them.

Glasses find new owners. Crazy jewelry, like a bejeweled 8K scorpion brooch, goes on eBay


“We sell some things online that we think might have a special niche audience and it’s the ugliest jewelry that sometimes brings in the most money for our programs,” Steeves said.

Goodwill also accepts household items, like old vacuums and microwaves, working and not. If they can’t be spiffed up for resale, they’re also recycled. (One caveat: Leave anything wet or moldy at home.)

“I recently learned that we have a buyer of DVD cases,” Steeves said. “We’ll take the paper out and we’ll recycle that separately and then we sell the DVD cases to somebody. So we have a lot of partnerships that enable us to recycle stuff that might otherwise go into the waste stream.”


Maine, right now, doesn’t require mattress recycling.

John King, executive director of Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp., has heard of some municipalities going to the effort of stripping them down for metal, but it’s long, hard work.


King’s waste-to-energy plant in Auburn processes 70,000 tons of trash a year and works with 30 municipalities. But it can’t burn mattresses.

“The entrance to our boiler is 3-feet-by-3-feet so they don’t physically fit,” King said.

Instead, local mattresses are packed off for a Norridgewock landfill.

Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, would like to see the state consider new stewardship laws looping in mattress manufacturers, companies that make plastic film used for boat wrappings and agriculture (think wrapped hay bales) and, more broadly, all types of packaging.

Rather than focus on Maine’s recycling rate, she prefers to look at movement in the amount of waste generated in Maine per capita each year. Lakeman believes there’s more uniformity in reporting that number, plus, she says, if we’re recycling more, great, but if we’re also generating more waste per person at the same time, not great.

Waste per capita inched up in 2016, to 0.571 tons from 0.569 the year before, according to the latest Maine Solid Waste Generation and Disposal Capacity Report.


“We really need to focus on waste reduction in general, and redesigning material so that they’re not destined to be waste,” Lakeman said.

Some of Cifrino’s refresher advice: Buy in bulk. Bring your own grocery bags. Pack lunches in reusable containers. Take your own coffee cup in to get refilled.

“It really is kind of a Maine ethic to conserve,” she said. “By recycling, you conserve materials and minimize environmental impacts of our consumer culture — that’s a little part that we can all do. Together we create a circular economy where we keep reusing materials over and over again instead of cutting down trees and mining metals and extracting oil.”

Comments are no longer available on this story