Does any of it really get recycled? I’ve heard that question a thousand times and asked it myself too. On a national scale, whether it be elections, viruses, advertising, or age-defying filters on social media, we can all give examples of things that have been made to appear differently than they are.

The quick answer is yes. We wouldn’t be bothering with it otherwise. It’s actually almost comical to imagine that we are collecting all this paper, cardboard, metal, and plastic as part of a smoke and mirror campaign just to make people feel good.

Nothing run by four small towns in New England is going to be sophisticated or motivated enough to pull off such a charade. Still, there are plenty of people who swear they’ve been told by someone in the know that we secretly throw all your recycling in the trash.

As a culture, we are hard wired to be skeptical of the government, and for the most part, that’s a good thing, but what we share as the towns of Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville, and Hope is actually something to be proud of. Plus, it’s expensive to get rid of trash, both the per ton fee we pay and the shipping.

Number 2 translucent plastic (high density polyethylene) is the most valuable plastic we recycle at the transfer station.

 

That’s why anything that can be pulled out should be, and I’d venture a bet that we offer the most extensive recycling and food waste diversion options of any facility in the region.

No, it’s not perfect, and moving all the recycling around is a lot of work for the people who bring it to the transfer station. It’s also an operational challenge for the transfer station itself which requires a lot of labor and capital investment.

The sorting system is inconvenient, and it takes a while to learn, especially for people who have been accustomed to putting all their recycling in one bin (a system referred to as single stream or zero sort), but it is real. Last year we generated $131,000 by selling baled commodities and another $30,000 to $40,000 on scrap metal.

Baled recyclables waiting to be shipped in the recycling building.

 

Everything collected as recycling at Mid-Coast Solid Waste is baled and sold except for glass, which has no viable market in the state of Maine.

Some materials are more valuable than others — and there have been times when we have had to subsidize the trucking of lower value items like mixed paper — but we have never set up collection of any item with the intention of disposing of it as trash.

I know, the glass situation is hard to accept. Our brains and our hearts want to believe that glass is best — and that is true if you can reuse it over and over again at home.

Unfortunately, transporting and recycling glass is very labor and energy intensive. There is however still a benefit to separating glass from your trash since it is far better to crush it up and put it in the construction debris landfill here in town than to spend money and fuel shipping it further away.

As an inert material, glass can be used as clean fill for different purposes in the landfill and hopefully some day we will have a true reuse or recycling option for it. There is some promise to using it for things like road construction or in landscaping. I could write a whole column about glass recycling, but we will save that for another time.

A bale of recycling on display.

 

When it comes to the other household recyclables, it all goes somewhere, but not all of it has the same value. For years, we have toyed with the idea of moving to a system where we put all the recycling in one bin and let the sorting happen at big processing facilities with various types of technology.

There is sometimes a complex debate to have here, but right now it’s pretty simple. If we weren’t doing the sorting and baling of the material at our own facility the cost would be very very high. In fact, right now it costs more to get rid of unsorted recycling than it does for household trash.

But if we made recycling easier, more people would do it, and this would cut down so dramatically on our waste that it would make up for any of the reduction in quality, right? Nope. While some people undervalue the importance of recycling, others want so badly to believe that they are doing good that they are constantly adding non-recyclable items to the bins.

The recycling that comes from this community is worth something because it is already sorted by residents and transfer station staff and the quality is much better than the stuff that has been all mixed together and sorted out with machines. But it is a constant struggle to keep contamination out.

Everywhere in Maine, and probably elsewhere too, communities are paying twice or sometimes even three times as much to get rid of their recycling as their trash. They succeeded in getting more people to recycle, but the quality of what they produce is so low that manufacturers can’t afford to use it. It costs a lot to pull out the Pringles cans, wet cardboard, hoses, trash, and even occasional dead animals from the recycling.

Realistically, not every resident has the time nor physical ability to recycle everything perfectly and the people who throw everything in the trash are doing less damage than those who mistakenly put the wrong things in recycling bins.

If you feel like you want to recycle but can’t commit to the full program, you might consider focusing on doing very well in a few categories. Corrugated cardboard, scrap metal, cans, and number 2 plastic are all money makers for us pretty reliably. There will always be a market for these items and if you don’t have time to recycle everything, focus on those things.

Also, be sure to take advantage of the free food waste drop off. You will significantly reduce the weight and environmental impact of the trash in your yellow bag. If you use your own bucket, it’s totally free to dump your food waste in the Scrap Dogs container.

I will confess that when I’m in a really big hurry or the cleaning job is not going to be easy, I will occasionally sacrifice some 3 to 7 plastic, which is our lowest value and least recyclable category. Mixed paper and juice box type packaging are also harder to market and recycle than good quality corrugated cardboard. Unfortunately, it has been a losing battle to try and keep up with all the new packaging types that are being used.

A flyer we made a couple years ago to help people recycle better.

 

We should be encouraging manufacturers to use readily recyclable items, not constantly creating new materials. Maine passed a new “extended producer responsibility” bill which is in the rule-making phase and designed to do just that.

Until we come up with the perfect system, rest assured that a lot of things are very much worth your time to recycle. Enjoy a few photos of the inside of the recycling building. Feel free to reach out if you want to organize a tour for a small group.

Here’s a video we made a couple years ago to make it easier to understand what to do at the transfer station: fb.watch/hf2a0pGtaF/?mibextid=v7YzmG.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.  

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