What’s in your recycling bin? Interns will grade the contents this summer in 4 communities

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Margot Chirayath, right, holds open the lid of a recycling container as interns peer inside Thursday in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ten college students wearing bright yellow safety-vests laughed and bantered with one another as they walked through a South Portland neighborhood recently. But as they approached a curbside recycling bin, the interns became serious.

“Solid yellow. See the shredded paper in the plastic bag?” one intern said. The others nodded in agreement, before they closed the lid and moved to the next bin.

The shredded paper would have been acceptable in a clear plastic bag so it can be easily identified at the sorting station, but it was was in a brown plastic shopping bag – something the interns quickly recognized as a contaminant in the recycling stream. 

To those looking on, the sight may be unusual. But for Falmouth, Scarborough, South Portland and Windham residents, the interns will become a common sight this summer. The student are participants in a pilot program started by ecomaine, a regional waste management agency, and four of its member communities in an effort to reduce contamination of recyclable waste left at the curbside.

The interns will grade residents’ recycling bins with green, yellow or red tags placed on the lids. Green signifies the bin’s contents are recyclable. Yellow indicates that some items in the bin don’t belong and cannot be recycled by ecomaine, but the contamination is limited and it will still be collected by the city. A red tag means most of the bin’s content are not recyclable and the contents will not be collected.

Residents given red and yellow tags will also receive a list of the so-called contaminants found in their bins. The lists often include plastic bags and paper towels, among other misplaced waste.

The interns have been trained to open each bin and determine the tag color based on the contents visible at the top. They are instructed not to touch items in bins, and should not remove any non-recyclable items.

In order to understand what items are recyclable or not, the interns completed a two-week training program that included morning neighborhood walk-throughs and afternoon instruction.

Ecomaine environmental educator Katrina Bussiere-Venhuizen, center, works with interns as they look through residents’ recycling containers Thursday in South Portland to assess the recyclability of what’s in them. Left to right are Jess Wibby, Benni McComish, Venhuizen, Julie Gourlay and Sarah Weden. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The training helped the interns understand why certain items are not recyclable. During one lesson, they visited ecomaine’s recycling plant and saw how plastic bags jam sorting machinery and how unwanted materials can cause injuries.

“Another thing we’ve seen is a lot of big objects that can get caught in the machines and potentially hurt someone,” said Julie Gourlay. “A lot of people don’t know that there are people who are going through the sorting, which is why there’s potential for injuries.”

The interns also learned about the economic costs of high contamination rates. The drop in revenue because of contaminated recyclables has become a major challenge for ecomaine and its member communities after China placed strict regulations on U.S. recyclables in 2018.

“It’s also going to be a huge economic setback for a lot of towns if they can’t get the contamination rates down,” said Meddy Smith, an intern who is checking recyclables this summer. Smith, a senior at Dickinson College who is home in Cumberland for the summer, is interested in a career that focuses on environmental sustainability. She said she believes the internship is a way to make a positive impact and get field experience that might help her career.

The interns completed last week’s neighborhood walk-throughs with Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s director of sustainability, and Katrina Bussiere-Venhuizen, an environmental educator at ecomaine.

The interns do not typically encounter large messes. Most often, the items they see that do not belong include paper towels and plastic bags – items that are commonly thought to be recyclable. Seeing similar items in every bin implies that residents care about recycling efforts, but are unaware that certain materials are not recyclable, the interns said.

At the end of a recent walk-through, the interns gave 32 yellow tags, 18 green tags and two red tags. The two bins that received red tags had full cups of coffee and food waste.

Although the interns are similar ages, they heard about the job in different ways. One intern learned about it through career planning services at his college, while a couple others have a career interest in sustainability and reached out to Rosenbach.

This summer, South Portland has employed four interns, while Windham, Falmouth and Scarborough employed two each. The interns will be paid $12 an hour, and each intern will work 20 hours a week.

So far, there haven’t been major concerns from residents about the pilot program. However, Rosenbach has received emails from some residents concerned about privacy. She says the number of emails is in the single digits.

The interns said the response from onlookers has been curious, but positive. If approached by skeptical residents, the interns are trained to explain the purpose of their job. If there are any other concerns, the interns are instructed to give the resident Rosenbach’s contact information.

On one walk-through, an unconvinced resident approached the group, but after the interns explained that they were trying to educate, not reprimand, and would not be touching the recycling, the resident was understanding.

Like the residents who recycle, the interns are also excited to be a part of Maine’s sustainability efforts.

“In Maine, the environment is really important to all of us as far as recreation and tourism and also plays an important role in just kind of like the culture of our state,” said Smith.

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