2018-08-17 / Community

The scoop on recycling

How markets abroad are impacting us at home and what the city is doing about it
By Lucy Brennan

You may have recently heard some buzz about changes in the recycling market and we’re here to catch you up and share what it means for South Portland. For years China has been the world’s top importer of trash and the recipient of nearly a third of the United States’ recycling exports. Recently China has started to clamp down on what items it is willing to accept. Of special note is a more stringent restriction on acceptable contamination. China has incrementally moved down from almost 30 percent accepted contamination in imported recycling loads to now only 0.5 percent accepted contamination. These bans and tighter restrictions have sent the global market out of balance.

Ebbs and flows in the wider market are having rippling effects on our local sustainable waste management practices. Ecomaine, the regional provider of solid waste solutions, is facing rising costs and financial pressure to adjust to the changing market. At the same time, this municipally-owned nonprofit remains dedicated to the waste hierarchy and recycling. In response, ecomaine is looking at new recycling importers, but also cracking down on tainted loads of recycling. The only way to bring costs down and adjust to new standards is to ensure that ecomaine is getting clean recycling.

We all play a role in this challenge and share in the responsibility of reducing contamination for a cleaner recycling load. A phenomenon known as “wish-cycling,” placing items in the recycling bin in hopes that they can be recycled, helps to explain the heavy rate of trash turning up in recycling loads at ecomaine. Despite the best of intentions, wish-cycling has turned up old shoes, computer hard drives, holiday lights, pillows and bubble wrap. However, wish-cycling alone is not the culprit here. High contamination rates are also attributed to common misunderstandings of what items go in each bin.

In recognition of the need to reduce contamination from South Portland recycling loads, the Sustainability Office launched a summer education and outreach pilot program in Redbank Village. Beginning in June, an intern from the University of New England teamed up with a generous Redbank resident to walk door-to-door in the community every Friday. Together they check recycling bins for contamination and provide picture-based educational material to explain what items go in each bin. Educational materials are also available in English, Spanish, French and Arabic. These resources coupled with personal outreach have started to foster a better understanding in the community of how to recycle properly.

The Sustainability Office has expanded the program to other parts of South Portland and has plans to provide education and outreach citywide. Contamination is a citywide issue and not unique to specific neighborhoods. From mid-May through mid-July, South Portland had a 17.7 percent contamination rate, second highest among ecomaine owner communities. Refrigerator magnets and do/don’t cards are available at the Sustainability Office for anyone in learning more about what items go in each bin. For those with smartphones, the city has an exciting new App, “South Portland Recycles.” In the South Portland Recycles App, you can enter your home address to receive specific information about your collection schedules and have easy access to the Recyclopedia. With the Recyclopedia, simply type in an item you are unsure how dispose of properly and the program will tell you which bin to put it in – it’s that easy.

“Our Sustainable City” is a column in the Sentry. Lucy Brennan is a sustainability program coordinator with the city of South Portland. She can be reached at lbrennan@southportland.org.

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