Last winter in Florida I accompanied a friend as she took her trash and recycling to the neighborhood bins. I watched in stunned horror as she pulled an unrinsed jar of marinara sauce from her bag and deposited it in the glass recycling container. While she was obviously thinking “recycling,” I was thinking “contamination.” I said nothing at the time, because it just wasn’t a teaching moment and also because the whole recycling scene is so fraught with uncertainty that I feared I’d turn her completely away from any kind of trash sorting if I pointed out that her carefully separated jar would contaminate an entire load of clean recycling.

Like most of us, my friend wanted to do the right thing, but what that right thing is remains unclear. Many of us have spent more time than we wished sorting paper, glass, metal and plastic into their separate bins under the sink and dutifully placing them in curbside bins or toting them to the transfer station, a process still in effect in many municipalities. But in that town in Florida, as well as in many cities and towns, single-stream recycling — the system of dumping all the recyclables into one bin — was until recently seen as the waste system of the future, one whose convenience would encourage more participation and thus provide more materials for recycling. But it’s now estimated that about 25 percent of the stuff we try to recycle is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association. That problem has only compounded since January 2018, when China, which had been buying about half of the U.S. waste plastic, announced it would ban the import of 24 materials, including those mixed plastics, because the goods we sent them were too contaminated. While some recycling management companies have searched for markets in other Asian markets, those countries can’t handle the volume because they don’t have China’s recycling infrastructure. Nor do we.

“All politics is local” is a commonly used phrase in the United States, referring to the idea that voters are concerned most about issues that affect their personal lives and home communities, and they vote accordingly. By the same token, all recycling is local. On a national level, Bernie Sanders proposes in his “Green New Deal” plan a recycling program that would require companies to pay to take back consumer scrap in order to build things like wind turbines, batteries, and other renewable-energy equipment with as many recycled materials as possible. Here in Maine, where waste once destined for China is piling up in landfills and incinerators, taking us further from the three-decade goal of recycling half of our household waste, lawmakers this year passed a resolve that directs the DEP to draft a bill that would force packing material producers to pay at least 80 percent of disposal costs for materials that are not easily recyclable, invest in new recycling infrastructure, and make products that are easier to recycle. Not surprisingly, the producers are balking at the idea. But as consumers, it’s difficult to focus on these larger cycles and trends; we need to know what the hell to do with the juice box or Styrofoam meat tray right now. Recycle them? Trash them? Dealing with every piece of waste that enters the home should be as simple and clearcut as flossing your teeth. (Yes, I do realize dentists would take issue with just how clearcut this is to many of their recalcitrant patients, but you get the idea. Flossing is a no-brainer.) Instead, we struggle at all levels with our own junk.

Nowhere is the threat of trash inundation more real than on an island, say an island like Vinalhaven, where I have a home. There’s not an infinite amount of space in which to put stuff on an island. Several years ago, realizing that the island’s solid waste ordinances needed updating, at the request of the Board of Selectmen a committee was formed to address the matter. The committee saw this as a chance to improve the whole waste treatment system and, working with the always-supportive board, the island switched from doing its own recycling separating to being a part of Ecomaine’s single-stream system. In the time it took to make the switch, the China market collapsed and the whole recycling scene changed, but the island’s committee (known as Waste Watchers) went ahead with the plan, reasoning that if there was any chance the island could break even on recycling costs, it was worth doing. There was also another arrow in the committee’s quiver: if food wastes could be used in an on-island composting program, it would reduce the waste shipped off the island and, in doing so, turn it into an asset. If you’ve ever sat in line waiting for the ferry during the summer months, you’ve likely seen trucks loaded with plastic bags full of compost waiting to board along with you, proving the need for soil amendments was there; granitic islands have poor soil, in general.

In order to start an island composting system, committee members applied for and received a grant from Maine DEP. In announcing the $20,425 award the DEP said it was given to “establish a year-round on-island composting program available to all residents. This will decrease the costs and environmental impacts associated with shipping wastes to the mainland and provide much-needed soil amendments for island gardens.” The islanders are also the beneficiaries of advice from DEP organics expert Mark King. King has developed a program to suit the island’s limited amount of space, one that relies on a material the island already has on hand: horse manure. With island manure and the addition of some trucked from off-island, a managed pile of about 15 cubic yards is being constructed on a town-owned site near the transfer station. Household food scraps are accumulated in bins placed near the entrance to the station’s drop-off site. When full, the bins’ contents are emptied into scooped-out holes in four places around the perimeter of the manure pile and covered. This process is repeated four times, and with each consecutive addition the previous bin contents are further mixed into the pile. The compost is then left to finish breaking down, which is expected to take about eight weeks. By then, it should be a rich soil amendment, ready to be sold for $5 a cubic foot.

Gardeners who already compost at home aren’t affected by this new project, but for those without the space or desire to compost, it’s at least a chance to save money. Vinalhaven has a pay-to-toss trash system, and removing food wastes from trash bags saves space and thus money. The Waste Watchers plan to pass out free countertop compost pails, donated by Ecomaine, as well as larger compost buckets for outdoor use, to anyone who wants them. The whole project is a pilot program, as no other Maine islands are currently involved in community composting, but as Anna Poe, a volunteer who is overseeing the compost project for Waste Watchers, said, “This is the lowest-budget, lowest-tech way to see if we can do it.”