In the week after Gov. Janet Mills issued a stay-at-home order to help reduce the spread of coronavirus infection, the amount of garbage collected in Portland rose roughly 25 percent from the average of the previous four weeks.
One key reason Mainers are producing more garbage is that many are eating all their meals at home from packaged food items purchased at the grocery store. Demand for paper products and certain canned and frozen food products has spiked, leaving suppliers unable to replenish those products fast enough to keep store shelves stocked consistently.
In Portland, another reason for the increase may be the city’s decision to suspend its pay-as-you-throw requirement that trash be contained in special purple bags, which residents have to purchase. But another theory applicable statewide is that as people are spending more time at home, they are cleaning out basements and garages, tidying up yards, or simply decluttering.
“It’s possible that people are getting rid of more stuff than they normally would,” said Chris Branch, Portland’s public works director. “I think the good news in all this is that we haven’t seen the recycling change.”
That’s important, according to ecomaine, because recycled materials are a vital link in the supply chain for producers of toilet paper, paper towels and the corrugated cardboard boxes used to ship groceries and medical supplies. Kevin Roche, chief executive of the recycling and waste-to-energy nonprofit based in Portland, said ecomaine is providing an essential service.
“It’s critical that facilities such as ours stay operational to help meet the needs of the mills that need our fiber material, (which), in turn, fulfill the needs of American consumers,” he said in a statement. “Ecomaine is taking precautions so that we can remain active, and we urge our member communities, essential businesses and residents to continue recycling.”
Not all communities in Maine view recycling as essential. The city of Augusta, for example, recently suspended its recycling operation both at curbside and at the Hatch Hill landfill. In a letter to the city manager dated April 5, Director of Public Works Lesley Jones wrote:
“I, myself, am throwing my recycling in with my rubbish and will continue to do this until we are able to return to normal operations. We are suggesting to residents who call that they do the same. My concern is that we will not be physically able to manage everyone’s recycling once we open back up if everyone saves it and will likely have to landfill the surplus that we cannot handle.”
Other municipalities have restricted drop-off hours. Nationally, concerns over social distancing and staffing necessary to collect recyclables have led to similar suspensions, as has the inability of some recycling facilities to allow for proper social distancing, according to David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
“There are some interesting changes in supply and demand going on in the market,” Biderman said. “Cardboard prices have tipped up over the past month because the paper mills have more of a need for materials.”
Ecomaine spokesman Matt Grondin said the per-ton price of fiber material used to make cardboard jumped from less than $50 in February to an average of $65 in March and a high of $84 in the second week of April. Ecomaine also saw a 7 percent rise in residential recycling over last two weeks of March, compared with a similar time frame in 2019, as Mainers heeded stay-at-home guidelines from local and state governments.
In response to fears about potentially infectious material, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine on the aerosol and surface stability of the coronavirus found it potentially could remain on cardboard for up to a day, and on plastic and stainless steel for up to three days. Those who gather and sort recycled materials are well versed in safety precautions, according to Grondin.
“We outfit our own workers with gloves, masks and safety goggles,” he said. After sorting, the recycled material sits in a truck before being taken to a warehouse so “we’re confident by the time it’s being processed it will be free of any possible contamination.”
Casella Waste Systems provides solid waste and recycling collection services to roughly 90 municipalities, 13,000 businesses and 117,000 households across Maine, often under the banner of its subsidiary, Pine Tree Waste. Joe Fusco, vice president of the company, said it’s difficult to draw a straight line from the global pandemic to changes in waste and recycling streams without collecting underlying data.
“And right now, we’re not stopping to take the time to do that,” he said in a phone interview from Casella headquarters in Rutland, Vermont. “Our main concerns are keeping our employees healthy and safe, and making sure we’re in a position to serve our customers.”
Even so, Fusco said, the landscape feels as if it is shifting.
“You can make a case for an economy where shipping boxes is becoming one of the main forms of trade,” he said. “And I can tell you that fiber prices globally are inching up. The other macro thing to look at is plastics, which are weakening somewhat primarily due to plummeting oil prices.”
If oil is cheap, manufacturers of plastic have less incentive to use recyclables as their raw material, Fusco said.
“The more weeks that go by, patterns will emerge and you can see with better certainty,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s rocket science to say that all of human activity has shifted. People are not eating in restaurants; they’re eating at home. People have time on their hands, so they’re cleaning out garages and basements. We’re a lagging indicator of human activity.”
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is coming up later this month, on April 22. The pandemic has altered plans for celebration, as it has disrupted the effort to educate consumers to the benefits of recycling.
Grondin said the ecomaine website includes videos, virtual tours and activities for young learners, with mazes, coloring and crafts made from paper and upcycled materials.
“Even though everybody is at home,” he said, “we still want to celebrate Earth Day.”