Mid-Coast Solid Waste, Rockport. (Photo by Brian P. D. Hannon)
Mid-Coast Solid Waste, Rockport. (Photo by Brian P. D. Hannon)
Maine prides itself on being a leader in recycling as part of its long commitment to preserving the state’s natural beauty and resources. While trash burning still occurs, recyclable materials largely remain out of the flames even as corporations and transfer stations absorb lower prices and more stringent sorting procedures.

In addition to being an environmental imperative, recycling is also a global business that has been affected by a significant policy change abroad.

In 2017, China banned imports of recyclables containing more than 0.5 percent of “contamination,” the term for non-recyclable trash. For many years, the allowable contamination rate was between 20 and 30 percent, according to Matt Grondin, communications manager for ecomaine. “They imposed what has effectively become a ban on all but the very, very cleanest recyclable material,” he said.

Ecomaine operates a landfill, a recycling operation, and a “waste-to-energy facility” where the Portland company burns trash to generate and sell electricity. Its list of 72 Maine municipal clients includes Camden, Liberty, Lincolnville, Owls Head, North Haven and Vinalhaven, Rockland, Rockport, Thomaston, South Thomaston, and Washington.

“We generate 100,000 megawatts of electricity per year from approximately 175,000 tons of trash burned,” Grondin said. “This is from all of our communities, who all bring their trash here to be burned, but it is also from Maine businesses and private hauling companies, as well, who have contracts with ecomaine for management of municipal solid waste.”

The company does not burn recyclables, regardless of the price. “We find a home for our recyclable materials, even when it’s costing us to have it sent to the market,” Grondin said, explaining that 18 months ago the company might have received $100 per ton for post-consumer mixed paper, but now pays to send materials to recyclers at a cost ranging from $5 to $15 per ton.

“Before this ban, ecomaine did send its post-consumer paper to China; all of our other material stayed in North America,” Grondin said. “However, paper is approximately 50 percent of what we recycle every year, so it was a blow to our operation, to be sure.”

Ecomaine’s recycled paper is now being sold to other foreign markets, including India and Indonesia, but prices have fallen. The company has increased staff to help sort trash from recyclables, which has raised expenses at a time of lowered revenue, Grondin said.

Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), said ecomaine has attempted to reduce contamination by instituting checks on each load, increasing fees for contaminated loads, as well as promoting household recycling education.

Local operators such as the Belfast Transfer Station have also had to endure changes in sorting procedures and prices.

There are seven types of plastic. Belfast separates number two — High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), the thick variety used for medicine and shampoo bottles and milk and juice containers — because it fetches a higher price. The rest is sold together as “mixed plastic,” said Sandy Carey, manager of the Belfast station, who noted that previous market prices between $15 and $20 per ton have dropped dramatically.

“At this point, if I had a truck to go I would probably have to pay,” Carey said. The station is a small facility that only sells around one truckload, approximately 13 tons, of mixed plastic per year, but the current market drop would force her to pay its recycling partner in Canada to take the material off her hands.

Belfast takes materials the public has divided using recycling bins and sorts them again before selling the bundles to the Canadian facility, which further divides the plastic into numbered categories. Even then, Carey said, the sensitivity about contamination has risen to the point where the Canadian mill now asks for photos before shipping to ensure low contamination levels.

Carey said the Belfast Transfer Station does not burn any materials, whether trash or recycling. Lakeman of the NRCM said that is not the case throughout the state. “There are a handful of towns that have stopped recycling altogether,” Lakeman said, citing the example of Orrington. “Since they are home to one of the waste-to-energy facilities they get free disposal, so they are sending all recycling to the incinerator now as well.”

“Other towns, like all that use Lincoln County Recycling, have limited plastic collection to just #2,” she said.

The Maine Resource Recovery Association (MRRA) consults with member communities to find the most beneficial prices for solid waste and recyclable materials. “We are noticing that there is a lot more material available domestically than in years past,” said Executive Director Victor Horton. “This is causing a mini glut of available paper that tends to drive the price down.”

Horton cited the example of Mid-Coast Solid Waste, which handles waste and recycling for Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and Hope. In December 2016, Mid-Coast shipped 27 tons of mixed paper that resulted in a net profit of more than $1,500 at a price of approximately $85 per ton.

“This December that material is worth $25 [per] ton, so after freight and fees they net negative $400 for a load of 23 tons,” Horton said. “The disposal cost comparatively would be much higher than the cost to recycle it. If we apply the cost to haulers to dump at Mid-Coast currently $160 [per] ton, that material would cost close to $3,700 to get rid of.”

Asked whether MRRA burns any material for its members, Horton did not answer directly, saying that the organization handles approximately 15,000 tons of matter from recyclables to rubbish and scrap metal, and that each community seeks different ways to handle these objects. “We tailor our service to meet their needs,” he said.

“We work with municipalities to handle their waste materials in an environmentally responsible manner as cost effectively as possible,” Horton said. “I would say many are reevaluating their abilities to recycle with the current economic market and the difficulty caused by the export market.”

NRCM’s Lakeman said that without the state’s bottle bill, which she called “the gold standard of recycling,” there would be fewer items recycled, while the impacts of China’s “green sword” would be even more acute in Maine.

“This issue has really brought to light that towns and taxpayers are on the hook for paying for everything, and it’s not ‘free,’” she said. “And with increasing costs and weak markets, we are burning or burying more valuable resources.”