ELLSWORTH — Since 1989, Maine has had a goal of recycling 50 percent of its municipal solid waste, a goal that it has never come close to reaching (the rate was roughly 38 percent in 2019). Part of the reason Maine has struggled? A lack of reliable data, say officials at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM).
“Data is a huge mess in Maine and nationally,” said Sarah Nichols, sustainable Maine director at NRCM. “And you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
Staff at the DEP agreed.
The information is “so incomplete,” said Megan Pryor, who helps collect information from transfer stations and municipalities, that it can’t be used to calculate progress toward the state’s recycling goal. For that, said Pryor, “We use reports as close to the point of end destination as possible.”
The requirements for reporting have shifted over the past few years (municipalities are now required to report every two years), but in 2018, only 104 municipalities submitted reports, out of 487 that were notified, said Pryor.
“Many municipalities were not accustomed to reporting,” said Pryor in an email, as the department had previously required reports only from transfer stations. In recent years it became clear that, to get a full picture, the department needed to hear from municipalities as well, to better understand gaps in collection programs.
“We provided instructions and a calculator so transfer station staff would just have to enter each town’s population and the total amount of MSW [municipal solid waste] disposed and recycled, and the form calculates the estimated amount per town,” said Pryor. “It’s not perfect, but it was the best we could do for facilities that do not have scales to weigh the materials from each town separately.”
The DEP purchased a mailing list for key town officials from the Maine Municipal Association, said Pryor, “and mailed letters to all addresses on the list notifying them of the reporting requirement and included instructions to submit the report.” She wasn’t sure why so many municipalities didn’t report, but could only speculate that “for example, some letters may not have made it to the correct person or been lost in the mail.”
Because the information is so incomplete, it’s used primarily to figure out “the lay of the land in terms of where the needs are,” said Pryor, such as municipalities with few opportunities for hazardous waste collection or recycling. Those areas might be good candidates for waste diversion grants and other guidance from the DEP.
The DEP does the best with what it has, said Nichols, but, “They’re understaffed and underfunded. It’s hard.”
The data the department does have also doesn’t present a full picture of what is actually being recycled, but rather what is being collected for recycling. For instance: a processor might buy a bale of plastics numbers 3-7, all baled together, then “take out the number fives and burn the rest,” said Nichols. “I don’t think we should count that as recycling,” but right now, we do, because amounts are calculated at collection points, rather than end points.
“If we calculated how much of that material was actually recycled, we’d have an even lower recycling rate,” she added.
Recent calculations show that recycling rates in many Hancock County municipalities lag behind the statewide average, which was roughly 38 percent in 2019.
That year was a particularly tumultuous one for communities, as it was the first full year of reporting after China enacted its National Sword Policy, which went into effect in early 2018 and upended global recycling.
But communities struggled to keep rates up even before that: in 2017, Bar Harbor had a recycling rate of roughly 20 percent, while Bucksport had a rate of 25 percent, Lamoine 18 and Ellsworth 23. Castine had one of the highest recycling rates that year, at 58 percent.
There is a movement afoot to collect better data, said Nichols. It’s wrapped up in a bill, a draft of which is set to be released this week, which proposes a program known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), that would shift some of the costs of recycling onto the companies that made the packaging in the first place. (The state already has similar laws in place for things such as bottles and lead acid batteries.)
Tucked into the EPR bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) and Sen. Richard Bennett (R-Oxford County), is a provision for much better data collection, said Nichols.
The proposal would standardize statewide recycling programs, said Nichols, meaning what’s collected in one municipality is also collected in another. It would also require that, to get reimbursed for collection, transportation and the cost of managing the material (some of the highest costs municipalities pay), they would be required to report information on municipal solid waste, and a stewardship organization would conduct regular waste stream audits “so we would have a good idea about contamination, what materials are not being recycled ever,” said Nichols. “With that data we can make more changes.”