LEWISTON — Recycling needs to become a habit for it to catch on, and in Lewiston-Auburn, an 8% recycling rate says it hasn’t.
But, panelists during a Great Falls Forum on Thursday, said that a decade after the current single-stream recycling system has been in place, things are changing, and recycling has to change with the times.
First off, global recycling markets, impacted most recently by China, have recyclers confused as to what exactly can be placed in those curbside containers. And increased costs, especially for rural areas, has resulted in some municipalities axing recycling programs.
“With everything, and the cyclical markets, we’re not just giving up,” said Katrina Bussiere-Venhuizen, senior environmental educator at ecomaine, the waste management nonprofit that serves one-third of Maine municipalities.
Recently, Auburn was among the municipalities to discuss giving up recycling due to rising costs, but the City Council opted to continue the program as a committee takes a closer look. But, Bussiere-Venhuizen and her fellow panelists said giving up is shortsighted, and risks wasting a decade of outreach and environmental impact over one “bad year.”
“That’s not very productive,” she said. “Recycling has changed, but we’re sticking with what we’re doing.”
Bussiere-Venhuizen said when China stopped taking plastics and other material from around the globe, it never impacted ecomaine, which sends its plastic material to places such as Alabama and Michigan. As for its paper, she said ecomaine has found new domestic vendors.
Julie Rosenbach, sustainability director for the city of South Portland, said the market has also made it necessary for places such as ecomaine to receive “cleaner loads,” meaning recycling material that is less contaminated with either food or nonrecyclable material.
She said anything that is considered more than 25% contaminated ends up at ecomaine’s waste-to-energy incinerator, meaning that the municipality ends up paying the added cost. In South Portland, she said, that was estimated at an extra $100,000 last year.
In response, she said South Portland has been conducting outreach initiatives regarding contamination, which Rosenbach called “a second wave” of education on what exactly can go in the recycle bin. A group of interns put a series of colored tags on residents’ recycling bins based on the material found inside, letting them know how they were doing.
“We know we can put some effort into outreach and education and change our numbers,” she said.
Bussiere-Venhuizen said people need to put effort into recycling, but that getting that effort in the face of changing markets is difficult.
She said ecomaine sees items such as saw blades, bocce balls and propane tanks come through its facility. But some of the materials most people consider obvious aren’t either. Pizza boxes can’t be soiled with grease. Plastic bags should not be placed in curbside recycling, but can be brought to your local grocery store.
Yes, Bussiere-Venhuizen said, ecomaine does get slices of leftover pizza in some boxes, too.
Chrissy Adamowicz, Sustainable Maine outreach coordinator for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said there is legislation proposed in Augusta, called “Recycling Reform for Maine,” that would make recycling easier for consumers by requiring manufacturers to create better packaging and clearer labels.
She said similar laws are in effect all over the world in places such as Canada and the European Union.
She said the state has had a goal to increase recycling rates to 50% for the past 30 years, and has never reached it, and believes the legislation could help.
Statewide, the average municipal recycling rate is about 30%, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. But the rates in Lewiston-Auburn aren’t the lowest.
In Bangor, the recycling rate is 4.3%, according to the DEP. Augusta’s is 6%, according to ecomaine.
Portland sits at 38%, but Portland spends money to recycle. In 2017, the city spent $1 million to provide residents with large recycle barrels with attached covers, along with information on how to recycle correctly and avoid contaminating recyclables. Portland also has a pay-as-you-throw trash program.
“People hate it, but it gets serious results,” Rosenbach said, regarding pay-as-you-throw programs.
A few city officials from Lewiston and Auburn were in the audience Thursday.
Doug Greene, city planner in Lewiston, said the city is working on an educational campaign regarding recycling, but that the city “is struggling right now.” Lewiston has focused first on eliminating trash blight in the downtown and, like Auburn, does not have covered recycling bins.
“Going through the ordinance, it’s old and it’s outdated,” he said.
City Councilor Joline Landry-Beam told the audience the city has just formed a Recycling Committee that will take on outreach and education initiatives.
“A lot of our recycling is lost because it’s contaminated,” she said.