The changing face of recycling

Issue to be discussed at Sept. 27 MCSW board meeting
By Susan Mustapich | Sep 14, 2017
Photo by: Susan Mustapich The market for mixed plastics recycled and baled at Mid-Coast Solid Waste has crashed.

ROCKPORT — The cost of handling mixed-plastic recyclables at Mid-Coast Solid Waste now exceeds the value of the material on the recycling market.

The transfer station in Rockport has been recycling mixed plastic for more than five years, according to manager Jim Guerra. The price paid for a ton of baled mixed plastic has dropped, and is now so low that the cost of collecting the material from the recycling bins and baling it is more than what the transfer station is paid for the material. Guerra estimates that handling the mixed plastic costs about $50 a ton.

The economic change in recycling mixed plastics has drawn the attention of the MCSW board of directors.  Mixed plastics recycling will be discussed at the upcoming MCSW board meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m., according to board member Alison McKellar. The meeting takes place in Camden, in the Washington Street conference room.

Other materials are profitable to recycle. The transfer station earns $350 per ton for colored number two plastic, which is what laundry detergent and white plastic milk containers are made of. Natural number two plastic, the material of clear milk containers, earns the transfer station $450 per ton.

Cardboard is worth $125 per ton, and mixed paper and newspaper is worth $80 a ton. Metal cans and lids are a mainstay of the profitable recyclable materials.

The problem with mixed plastic comes from many sources, according to Guerra. MCSW mainly sells recyclables to businesses that buy from solid waste-processing facilities and sell to end users out of state. When MCSW started recycling mixed plastic, there were two markets for the product. Now, there is only one, located in Baltimore. Number two plastics and steel are shipped out of state, mainly to Pennsylvania. The only product currently sold in state is newspaper; it goes to the Hudamaki plant in Waterville, which makes paper packaging for the food-service industry.

Guerra points out that recyclables are shipped to areas that make things. Shipping costs reduce what buyers will pay.

Mixed plastic is a high volume and low weight material, so it can take up a lot of space at the transfer station. It fills up the recycling bins, requiring many trips back and forth to empty the bins.

The buyers of mixed plastic have changed their preferences over the years. The transfer station used to accept large plastic items from the waste stream, cut them up, and mix the plastic in with the numbered mixed plastics. Buyers will no longer take a bale with this miscellaneous plastic material mixed in, Guerra said. At one point, buyers suggested that the bales contain only a couple of the types of plastic that fall into the mixed plastic categories, such as number one and number seven plastics. Guerra did not want to impose that change on residents, and using employees to pick one or two types of mixed plastic out of the pile adds to labor costs.

More recently, buyers have changed preferences again, favoring volume, rather than quality. As single-sort recycling gears up in the state of Maine, mixed-plastic buyers now pay more based on volume, Guerra said. ecomaine in Portland offers single-sort recycling, where residential and commercial customers can throw all types of recyclables in a single bag, which is then mechanically sorted. MCSW, which handles municipal solid waste for five towns, cannot compete with ecomaine, which processes solid waste for many municipalities.

As a result of being unable to sell its recyclable mixed plastics, MCSW has had to pay to have the material hauled to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Corp.

Courier Publications reporter Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at

Comments (1)
Posted by: Jim A Guerra | Sep 19, 2017 11:19

A couple of points. We've only shipped to PERC a mix that included our rigid plastics as that destination no longer exists. Also, not so much that we cannot "compete" with ecomaine and other material sorting facilities (we often work together), it is more that their higher volume simply commands a better position in the marketplace. I know that they too are struggling with this on a load by load basis. We are committed to this program for many reasons but finally do need markets. There is still time for things to change. Not quite bursting at the seems!


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