Maine is still missing the mark in meeting its self-imposed goal of recycling 50 percent of the trash destined for state landfills. And a recent study by the University of Maine reveals few bright spots in a sample survey of 17 communities. The survey concluded that as much as 60 percent of what’s thrown away could be diverted from the waste stream through composting and recycling. But one Maine community is bucking the trend and has actually exceeded the state recycling target.
Travis Blackmer is one researcher who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. The University of Maine economics graduate student decided to go right to the source in order to find out what Mainers are tossing in their trash cans these days.
“We actually went out there and we opened up bags of trash to got to kind of see what the waste looks like, because you can have this manual that says this is what this type of paper looks like and this type of plastic,” Blackmer said. “But then you open up the trash and you go, ‘What the heck is that? What the heck is this?’s So it’s certainly an interesting learning experience.”
And it provided interesting results. Working with George Criner, director of the School of Economics who has researched trash in Maine for several decades, Blackmer determined that the 17 communities participating in the UMaine study could have, on average, diverted about 60 percent of trash from the waste stream by composting organic materials and recycling the rest.
Blackmer charted the stacks of discarded newspapers, along with other compostable paper that he said made up about 25 percent of all waste, with textiles — including clothing — adding nearly another five percent. He also checked out what was happening when the refuse reached its destination point.
“We went out and we sampled stuff at transfer stations, or we did some curbside collection,” he says. “Now, as to where the trash was going, that depended on the town. Much of it was going to either PERC, I think a couple of the towns used the inciderator in Auburn. We actually sampled trash directly at the incinerator at Eco-Maine, which is a waste-to-energy and single-stream recycling facility in Portland. And we also know we sampled some trash that just went straight to landfills.”
Single-stream or zero-sort recycling is designed to encourage recycling by relieving homeowners from the tasks of separating out their recyclables. Instead all of the recyclables are placed into one container and separated for reuse at a materials recovery facility.
Still, only about 100 Maine communties employ zero-sort systems. Blackmer says every Maine community approaches recycling in its own way. For many small towns, transportation and storage costs are major factors.
“Some of them do it because they know it’s the right thing to do and they want to keep their costs down,” Blackmer says. “But it is hard when you don’t have these huge volumes to get good prices on your recyclable materials, or to have enough volume to make it worthwhile. Because it costs a lot to store newspaper in a building for a long enough time to get a tractor trailer truck full, which is normally what it takes to make it cost-effective for these towns to really care that much about it.”
Bucking the standard is the city of Brewer. Formerly falling closer to the current statewide standard of around 40 to 45 percent for recycling, Brewer has boosted its recycling rate to about 53 percent by implementing both a zero-sort and pay-as-you-throw system.
“We’re very proud of that number, and we think that gradually increases as time goes forward,” says City Manager Steve Bost. Bost says Brewer has realized substantial cost savings through the new system. The city has decreased the amount of residential trash going to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company in nearby Orrington by more than half, from 3,000 tons to 1,400 tons.
Bost says that while cost-savings are an incentive, there’s also a noticeably higher level of committment to recycling among Brewer’s residents. “The number reflects a serious interest in citizens to participate in the recycling effort,” he says. “In fact when given the option of opting out or reducing the efforts at the cityside, people are now very reluctant, they’re very proud of the program.”
At the state level, recycling is overseen by Ron Dyer, who serves as director of the Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management at the Department of Environmental Protection. Dyer says Brewer has done an outstanding job of increasing its reccyling rate. He says the state is trying to work with other communities to help them identifiy and resolve obstacles to local recycling efforts.
He says for many. the distance from a major trash-to-energy plant, or other facility, is a factor. “I think some of reasons are the infrastructure being in place,” Dyer says. “Of the towns I’m familiar with, the muncipalities, about 100 or so in Maine doing single-stream that I’m aware of, and they tend to be in certain geographic areas, close to the service area of certain facilities.”
According to the University of Maine’s report, the economics of recycling are complex. But it concludes that communities can save money if recycling is done wisely.