Ecomaine CEO: Commitment to recycling will pay off as markets rebound

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I have been in the waste management industry for nearly 30 years. And just like in any other industry, whether it’s construction, selling shoes or trading in soybean futures, the recycling markets have ups and downs.

Right now? They’re down.

There have been many headlines about the Chinese government’s decision to ban imports of recyclable materials from the rest of the world. This development has reached us, all the way across the globe, and it has led towns and cities here in Maine and across the U.S. to re-examine policies and practices associated with recycling. For good reason – this is the longest market downturn I’ve seen in my decades on the job. We should always investigate our way of doing things, to ensure efficiency and best return on investment.

But the conclusion that some have reached – to end or suspend municipal recycling programs – takes a shortsighted view.

Admittedly, this is a prolonged slump. It’s been a bad year for recycling – no doubt about it. But we’ve been here before. In the financial crisis of 2008-09, the situation was the same, in many ways. Following that recovery, the world saw a booming market for recyclable materials that led to record profits for facilities like ecomaine and our member communities.

Even so, ecomaine has found that paper is the sole material whose value has bottomed out. Plastics, when properly sorted, remain a positive resource. The same is true for cardboard. Metals are, in fact, in a stronger position than a year ago. But paper is such a significant amount of our recyclable material – and it’s of a different makeup now than the newspaper bundles of 15 to 20 years ago. Think about all the junk mail we all get; that’s of a lower quality than our newsprint that made up our recycling years ago.

And so, rather than focusing on the immediate crisis and making decisions for the short term, or based on one material in an entire recycling stream, I would urge the leaders of Maine’s communities to take a longer look at waste management.

Ecomaine is proud to follow the solid waste hierarchy, which is written into Maine law and serves as guidance on what to do with our waste. The first three “rungs” are the most recognizable – reduce, reuse and recycle. Following that are composting and digestion, then waste-to-energy, and landfilling as a last resort. Unfortunately, with the decision to cut back on recycling, some municipalities are promoting the lowest rung on the hierarchy in the name of short-term savings.

In the end, though, we know that landfilling will prove even more costly. Landfilling is “forever storage,” and will present an even greater cost and challenge to future generations to mitigate its effects.

At ecomaine, we and our 70-plus member communities have chosen to stay the course. To abandon decades of work in establishing these programs for one year of poor market performance is overly impatient, and risks an even greater challenge in restarting them once stopped. The markets will rebound, as they have done in the past; when they do, the organizations and communities who have maintained their commitment to recycling will be well-positioned as the markets swing upward, with relationships and contracts that will be advantageous.

In the meantime, we are focusing on what we can control. We are doing more to clean up our recycling stream, keeping it free of contamination, including hiring more staff to sort our recycling. We should do more to spread the word about what is (and isn’t) recyclable. At ecomaine, in these uncertain markets, we’ve doubled down on public education and community outreach, with more staff dedicated to being present in our schools and communities, to help recycle properly.

And we’ve devoted more of our own resources to developing materials to help clarify what recycling right looks like. Public understanding of the issue is key – and we’ve seen results. Contamination rates have started to go down, and more and more people in our member communities have heard the message.

We are positioning ourselves for long-term benefit in the world of waste management. It is not only the right thing to do, it’s our mission, and we will all benefit in the end. We’re all in this together. And as the markets start back up again – and there are signs of life – recycling will continue to be the bedrock of a sustainable waste management future in Maine.

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