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U.S. Recycling in Crisis, As Missed Opportunities Abound

Posted by Sarah Lakeman, Guest Columnist

Sep 24, 2018 12:34:17 PM

Steps include reducing waste, learning what is accepted locally and redeeming beverage containers.

Global recycling markets are changing, and cities and towns across Maine are responding – some by abandoning their recycling programs. This is a big wake-up call that will hopefully lead to big changes.

China, once the world’s largest importer of recycled commodities, has imposed a very strict quality standard – only 0.05 percent contamination. (And China does not want certain materials at all, regardless of their level of contamination). So now, there is unprecedented low demand combined with a big glut of recycled materials on the market.

Meanwhile, there’s another problem. The cost to send our waste to a landfill or waste-to-energy plant is relatively low, and we don’t have policies in place that prevent recyclables from being burned or buried. While some communities may be willing to pay more to continue their recycling programs, others are not, and many are deciding to just send everything to the landfill.

This demonstrates yet another part of the problem: Every town is responsible for figuring this out on its own – and paying for it with local taxpayer dollars. This uncoordinated town-by-town waste management system has always been inconsistent, inefficient and inequitable – and now it’s even more glaringly so.

Waste professionals from Maine and beyond are working hard to figure this out. Meanwhile, here’s what you can do to help:

 Reduce waste: Don’t forget to practice the first two R’s in “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Recycling helps, but ideally we would have less waste to begin with. Examine your household trash and think about changes to prevent things from being in there. If you are trying to “do the right thing,” it is better to use a reusable alternative or skip it altogether than to recycle.

 Recycle right: Maine’s inconsistent and confusing recycling system means you need to find out what items your city or town accepts. Just because you think something should be recyclable, it doesn’t mean that it is. The revolving arrow symbol only indicates the type of material, not whether you can recycle it locally. For example, no foam food containers or plastic film (such as plastic wrap and sandwich bags) can be put in single-stream recycling!

To get answers to your recycling questions, download ecomaine’s Recylopedia app at ecomaine.org/recyclopedia; it can help even if your community doesn’t send your recycling there.

 Redeem your beverage containers: Maine’s bottle bill produces our cleanest recycled containers. It also reduces litter, creates jobs and alleviates taxpayer expense for managing this waste stream. About 90 percent of Maine’s beverage containers are recycled – that’s more than double our average town’s recycling rate. Given the collapse of some local recycling programs, it’s essential that Mainers continue to at least recycle our beverage containers.

 Buy stuff made with recycled materials: When you buy something, check the label and choose products made with post-consumer recycled content. Use this resource – recyclemoreplastic.org/buyrecycled – to learn about these products. You can also contact companies to request that they use recycled content in their manufacturing.

 Support policies for a strong recycling economy: Right now, the companies that produce packaging leave their messes for taxpayers to clean up and pay for. In dozens of other countries, packaging manufacturers manage and/or pay for their waste products. Many of these jurisdictions also have recycling rates over 60 percent higher than the U.S. recycling rate. With the proper incentives, companies that create packaging will make things that are more conveniently recyclable and made with recycled materials.

In addition, if Maine had a statewide recycling system, we could benefit from economies of scale and make it easier for people standing above the recycling bin wondering what to do. Join the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s action network at nrcm.org/take-action/nrcm-action-network to make your voice heard.

If we are wise, this crisis will spur us to make long-needed changes that will lead to a more sustainable system for managing our waste, and fix the piecemeal approach that has been cobbled together over the years.


Sarah Lakeman is Sustainable Maine project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine in Augusta.

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