ELLSWORTH — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the nearly six decades between 1960 and 2017, Americans threw away 218,300 tons of plastic: water bottles, bags, Styrofoam, PVC pipes, jugs for milk and laundry detergent, yogurt containers – you get the idea. In that time frame, just 7 percent of all that plastic was recycled, 15 percent was combusted for energy and the vast majority, 78 percent, was hauled to landfills and buried.
Plastics are not the only part of municipal solid waste (MSW) that can be recycled, of course. The overall recycling rate in the United States was 25 percent in 2017, with paper and paperboard being the most readily recyclable materials, while Maine had an overall recycling rate of 38 percent in 2017.
“I think we’re doing a little bit better than the rest of the country,” said Kevin Roche, CEO of ecomaine in Portland, in conversation with other industry representatives at a talk held by E2Tech last month.
The webinar, held on Sept. 16, brought together panelists including George Aronson, technical advisor to the Municipal Review Committee (MRC), to talk about what’s working and what wasn’t isn’t in Maine’s recycling and waste markets these days.
“When we instituted singlesort recycling back in 2006,” said Roche, “We saw a gradual increase every single year of what we were able to recover. That plateaued in 2015 and has declined ever since then. We’re losing capacity in our recycling infrastructure.”
Because recycling is measured by weight, some of that plateau, said Roche, can be explained by the decline in newsprint in the recycling stream and plastic bottles becoming more lightweight. But the recent upheavals in the market (including China’s decision two years ago to stop buying the world’s plastic trash) also exposed flaws in the system.
“Thirty years ago,” Roche explained, “Municipalities subsidized recycling…to the point where it was self-sustaining.” But when the value of those materials plummeted, it “Threw supply and demand out of balance, and it’s been out of balance ever since.” The system, said Roche, “Wasn’t really a sustainable model.”
Despite all of the grim news about recycling in recent months, Roche and the others on the call were hopeful.
“Don’t give up on recycling,” said Roche. “It’s been the most successful waste management strategy that we’ve had over the last 30 years.” Roche urged residents to “Focus on policy and how you can change policy to improve behavior.”
Some of that policy, said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), could involve states mandating that companies take back their packaging, or produce better packaging in the first place. “Companies have done a great job of externalizing the cost of waste disposal on the backs of consumers, including in municipalities.”
The state already has “stewardship” programs in place for many materials, including paint, redeemable bottles, batteries and fluorescent bulbs, and the legislature earlier this year considered a bill that would require large producers to pay money into a fund that would reimburse municipalities for the costs of recycling.
Similar to programs in Canada and Europe, the program outlined in the bill aims to incentivize companies to design products using less and more easily recyclable packaging. The bill, L.D. 2104, “An Act To Support and Increase the Recycling of Packaging,” was carried over when lawmakers adjourned in March.
“Design for recycling is an important concept,” Aronson agreed.
Roche said that burning trash for energy, as is done at ecomaine and Penobscot Energy Recovery Company, “also makes a lot of sense,” as a way to deal with waste. Recent figures show that Maine burned roughly 26 percent of its trash, said Roche, creating electricity that can be sold into the grid or, as ecomaine is doing, used to power vehicles and facilities. The organization already has a number of electric cars and is moving toward electric haul trucks as well, said Roche.
During the panel, Aronson outlined the struggles the Municipal Review Committee has had with the Coastal Resources of Maine plant in Hampden, which is in the process of looking for a buyer. It shut down earlier this year due to financial troubles.
“If you could recover recyclables from mixed waste, that would be disruptive,” said Aronson, referring to the plant’s model of pulling out recyclable materials from trash at the plant, rather than requiring residents to do so beforehand.
Aronson said that while facilities similar to the Hampden plant have a record of “not doing well or failing in the U.S.,” the plant’s operators had started to work out the kinks. “If we want better, we can’t be afraid of complexity, we can’t be afraid of taking risks,” said Aronson.
Roche said companies should also be careful not to “underestimate the value of outreach” and educating consumers on how to recycle properly — meaning keeping materials such as plastic bags (which can’t be recycled and snag in machinery, causing costly delays), holiday lights and batteries out of the recycling.
The answer to the most common question asked, “Is my recycling really being recycled?” said Biderman, is “Simple. The answer is both” recycled and trashed.
“Some of that material is recycled and some of that there is no market for,” said Biderman. “There are stronger markets in some places than others.” There are markets for thicker plastics, for instance, and paper mills are increasingly making investments to be able to take post-consumer paper as well.
The best way to reduce waste, of course, is to generate less in the first place, said Biderman. “We need to recycle properly,” said Biderman. “We’re not doing a good job.”