WESTBROOK — The city is looking to step up efforts to reduce recycling contamination, which is adding $5,000 a month to its waste removal bill.
For the past few months, the city has been charged roughly $5,000 a month by Casella Waste Systems to dispose of recycled material that has been contaminated with food waste and for items tossed out that cannot be recycled, such as electronics. That fee comes on top of the $25,000 it pays per month for regular waste removal, according to City Administrator Jerre Bryant.
“That is a significant amount of money, and we don’t see that number going down,” said Westbrook Sustainability Coordinator Lynn Leavitt.
In previous years, Westbrook and other cities only had to pay for disposal of trash. Waste management companies did not charge to accept recyclables, even those that were contaminated, because they could sell that material overseas at a profit. A toughter recyclable market now, however, has put an end to that practice.
“About two years ago, China decided that it was going to set new standards for the import of recyclables and how much contamination they could contain,” Casella Vice President Joe Fusco said. “They chose a number of one-half of 1%, or it would be rejected. That number is beyond the capability of any technology or process that exists today.”
After the regulation change, the market for recyclable material collapsed, Fusco added.
“The average price of paper dropped 90 percent, and overall value of recyclable commodities, paper, plastic and all other things, dropped about 65 percent. Now, that’s an economic problem,” Fusco said.
About 50 tons of recyclable material comes out of Westbrook each week, Leavitt said. Of that, only about 20-30 tons actually get recycled, and the city is being charged for the incineration or land filling of the contaminated batches.
“We tried to educate people before, and when we did we did saw a drop in contamination,” Leavitt said. “It is hard though, that number went right up, so it takes time and effort to reduce (contamination).”
According to Leavitt, contamination starts with ignorance about what can or cannot be recycled.
“One issue we see is people recycling plastic films, like shopping bags. They mean well, often those bags have recycle symbols on them,” Leavitt said. “But those bags cannot be recycled in our curbside system, and either have to be brought to the grocery store or thrown in the trash.”
The bags can’t be recycled because they are so light that during processing they get caught in the wind and end up wrapping around and jamming the machinery. The plastic bags are cities’ “No. 1 issue based on volume,” Leavitt said.
On top of educational efforts, Leavitt said, the city is also looking at programs where interns will go around and tag contaminated waste, while also educating homeowners. Interns in Windham, Falmouth, Scarborough and South Portland are patrolling those communities’ recycling bins this summer, sticking colored tags on bins to grade residents’ sorting performance.
“We are looking at neighbors doing that, and are waiting to look at their data to see if it is viable,” she said. “Hopefully after that, we will see our numbers go down.”
Leavitt also intends to put out more flyers on what can or cannot be recycled.
Casella has also begun to educate people on what is recyclable, starting the social media movement “#RecycleBetter.”
“We have to stop the problem where it begins, the mud room or right in the bin,” Fusco said. “Homeowners, municipalities, companies, have grown complacent on what is recyclable. … We need to learn what to toss out and recycle better.”