Is Maine’s recycling in the trash?

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The materials visible in these Auburn recycling bins would be recycled except for the Pennzoil containers, which likely contain oil residue, said Casella Recycling General Manager Rachel Washburn. Because of rising costs and too much “contamination,” the Auburn City Council will discuss ending recycling Monday at 5:30 p.m. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

AUBURN — At the urging of Mayor Jason Levesque, Auburn will consider whether it should end the city’s recycling program.

It’s a tough question at a time when the world is choking on man-made trash and pollution.

Reflecting on the fact that it now costs more to recycle than to incinerate, and that improper materials that many people are unknowingly putting in recycling bins are crippling the program, Levesque said the city needs to reconsider what it’s doing.

“I’m hearing it’s probably not worth it anymore,” Levesque told the City Council on May 7. “We need to have that conversation now on whether we continue it.”

City Councilor Holly Lasagna asked that recycling be discussed in more length in a workshop. That meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 13.

The fact that Auburn will talk about ending recycling “is indeed bad news,” said Sarah Lakeman of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Maine citizens want to recycle because they know it’s the right thing to do, she said.

Auburn has plenty of company. Recycling programs have been stopped or reduced by a growing number of Maine towns and cities. NRCM officials said more than 180,000 Mainers, representing 14 percent of the state’s population, live where recycling programs have been cut or restricted or are at risk.

Sun Journal graphic

Last week, Brunswick’s city manager recommended stopping the recycling program because of rising costs, and landfilling the materials, The Times Record reported on May 7. That proposal was rejected by town councilors.

“It’s clear that we are reaching the crisis mode and it’s time to act,” Lakeman said. The solution is not pouring more taxpayer dollars into programs, she said. “We need to compel the companies who are profiting from selling all of this wasted material in Maine to help us manage it all.”

NRCM is advocating state lawmakers pass LD 1431 to help municipalities cover recycling costs. The bill calls for packaging-material producers to help pay for recycling. That kind of policy exists in other countries, including Canada, Lakeman said, protecting recycling programs in the face of market changes.

In Auburn, Public Works Director Dan Goyette estimated that only about 8 percent of municipal solid waste is recycled once improper items are pulled out of recycling bins. In Lewiston-Auburn, those improper materials go to a landfill, which is worse, environmentally, than going to an incinerator.

Materials that “contaminate” recyclables include plastic bags, materials in plastic bags, grease-stained pizza boxes, containers with food in them, clothing and more. (See the list that accompanies this story.)

“The market has dried up,” Goyette told the City Council. China isn’t buying many materials that it used to. A lot of what people are putting out to recycle ends up at landfills, he said.

Companies that process recyclables — in Lewiston and Auburn it’s Casella Recycling — generally charge a fixed fee for recycling, about $120 a ton. Municipalities are later given credit for materials sold on the recycling market, which could be up to $40 a ton, which means recycling costs $80 a ton or more, Goyette said. Auburn’s cost to bring trash to be burned at the Maine Waste to Energy regional incineration plant in Auburn is $42 a ton.

“I’m not in the mood to pay money for a recycling program where the material isn’t being recycled,” Levesque said. With only 8 percent of the city’s household waste getting recycled, the mayor questioned whether “we’re doing anything positive for the environment.”

On Monday, Goyette will present a report on what’s actually being recycled, what’s going to landfills and a cost comparison. The workshop is at 5:30 p.m. at Auburn Hall.

RECYCLING ‘SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT OUR COMMUNITY’

City Councilor Alfreda Fournier said she’s looking forward to the report. She said she is “conflicted” about what to do. She wants her city to do the right thing for the environment, but she said she has a responsibility to taxpayers.

Fournier said she wants to learn more about which materials still have a value in the recycling market and focus on recycling those materials.

She said she wants to work to ensure Auburn isn’t contributing to the growing problem of plastic bag pollution. “You see in the news the floating islands of plastics and animals dying from balloons. That’s the part I can’t stand,” Fournier said. “We can’t keep doing that.”

Councilor Lasagna said she asked for the workshop because recycling isn’t just about the costs. Recycling or not recycling “says something about our community.”

Also looking forward to more information, Lasagna said she wonders whether Auburn might change its program and recycle only materials where there’s a market. And, she said, residents need help understanding what can be recycled and why things have changed.

“I’m disappointed in how few people recycle in the community, and that’s partly the fault of the city and people who should be responsible for educating people about recycling,” Lasagna said.

Since Auburn started zero-sort recycling, many people — herself included — don’t give as much thought about what should go in the recycling bin, Lasagna said.

“I’d like to provide more education to residents, let them understand the options, the costs and why there’s been that change, not just how to recycle,” she said.

Megan Pansfield Pryor, an environmental specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, warned that eliminating or reducing municipal recycling programs could have long-term negative consequences.

While recycling markets are limited now, she said more recycling capacity is being developed and there will be more places to send recyclables in the coming years.

It may be tough to absorb extra costs to recycle now, Pryor said, but it could be more difficult to reinstitute recycling later “once you’ve told people to stop and throw everything in the trash.”

Another idea Pryor offered: If a curbside, zero-sort program is too expensive or not working, stop zero sorting.

Another solution could be to do what the town of Greene does: establish a transfer station or public works facility where residents could bring separated recyclables. Separating recycled materials would mean they’d be cleaner and easier to get to market, Pryor said.

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