Kevin Roche’s first job after graduating from the University of Buffalo with a degree in geography was mapping the garbage truck routes for the city of Rochester, New York, where he grew up.

“That’s how I got knee-deep in trash,” said Roche, who 27 years later is chief executive officer of ecomaine, which operates a recycling and trash-to energy plant in Portland. At the plant, on Blueberry Road, garbage and recyclable material from more than four dozen communities in Greater Portland is recycled, incinerated or sent to a landfill.

Ecomaine is owned by 20 communities, has seven towns that are considered associate members, and handles the trash and recyclables of 27 other communities on a contractual basis. The plant employs about 75 people.

Q: What changes have you seen in the industry over the course of your career?

A: The industry has evolved over the last 27 years. I remember going out to a community meeting for our first recycling meeting, and people were saying no one would do it, but we have 85 percent of people recycling and they feel good about it. We started out with newspapers and it seems like the programs have really grown over the years, although we still have a long way to go. It’s all about landfill diversion. We have a landfill, but we try to conserve the space in that landfill for stuff that can’t be reduced, recycled or reused.

Q: Your plant was originally built to burn garbage to produce electricity. Is that still its primary role?

A: We’re much more than a trash-to-energy plant. We look at the waste-to-energy role as way down on the waste hierarchy. Our efforts on recycling are our priority.

We have marketed all the recyclable material successfully and what’s left over is non-recyclable trash and that goes through the waste-to-energy facility. We would rather recycle materials first, but after that, the waste-to-energy facility still has its place.

Q: How do you sort the recyclables?

A: We have some optical sorting and mechanical sorting as well, to separate the cardboard and the newspaper and the mixed paper and junk mail. We use (computer-controlled) optical sorting to recognize plastic bottles. We have a magnet to pull out metal cans and a reverse magnet to sort the aluminum – it repels aluminum. With water bottles and soda bottles that are made from plastic, that’s all automated – we have a scanner that “sees” the material.

Everyone’s efforts are going to good use – our bottles go to bottlers to make new bottles and our paper goes to paper mills that make new paper, and our cardboard goes to make new cardboard.

Q: What’s the route of the waste you get?

A: If you live in one of our communities – and we have 54 – and you’re recycling, the material is picked up, it comes into our facility and the material is metered into our system. The first thing that it crosses is the cardboard separator to separate larger cardboard boxes, because those are usually the largest items. It then goes over a sorting area where things that shouldn’t be in there – like bowling balls and even pet snakes – are sorted manually. We’ve found two pet snakes, very large snakes (both dead) and they have to go to the waste-to-energy plant. In the winter we get a lot of snow in the recycling, which means we get a lot of wet stuff, and we ask people to not leave their bins out overnight in the snow. We don’t want diapers, we don’t want sharps, and we don’t want medical wastes. Diapers are made with a material that there is no market for. Items like mattresses and diapers and cushions and old stuffed animals, the best choice is to recover energy from them.

Most of the material is handled through an automated process. Hand sorting is only for the mistakes or material that was never recyclable in the first place. We have a residue rate – recyclable material that goes to the facility but that’s not really recyclable – and our rate is about 6 to 7 percent. That’s exceptional. I’ve been in communities where the rate was over 20 percent. So the mistakes are few and far between. For the most part, we don’t have many mistakes.

Q: What kind of material do people put in their recycling bins that they shouldn’t?

A: We get all kinds of bags of leaves, which I guess people think is compostable and we shouldn’t throw that in the trash. We get tree branches, grass clippings, medical waste and chemicals.

Q: Do you ever try to track down people putting the wrong things in the trash or trying to recycle material that can’t be recycled?

A: We do. Usually when somebody throws something away, there’s usually some ID in it so we can track them down if it becomes a very significant issue for us. We’ve actually done that. Once, we had a route that came in with a lot of landscaping debris, like grass clippings and leaves, and we actually found out what neighborhood it was coming from and did some targeted education and went house-to-house and told people they were making a mistake here. Those things work. That problem went away. We actually knocked on the doors and we did it in a positive way. We went into the neighborhood and if they agreed to comply, we gave them a blue (recycling) box for inside their house as a reward.

Q: How much trash and recyclable material do you handle?

A: We bring in about 180,000 tons of trash versus 43,000 tons of recycling annually. About 6 percent of that will be deemed not recyclable. The trash number includes commercial trash, but the recycling rate does not include commercial recyclables. (Companies often recycle their waste because) that’s a revenue stream for them.

Q: What’s the market like for recyclable material?

A: It was strong, but it’s very poor right now. Recyclable material is a commodity and the commodities market in general is poor. Steel was a very strong market last year and the year before, but that collapsed. When fuel prices came down, that collapsed the market for plastics. Lower energy costs and the export market have hurt the prices for recyclables. China is a huge buyer of scrap from the U.S. and when their economy stumbled, they stopped buying scrap. If you eliminate the export market, that brings the domestic prices down. It’s supply and demand. For paper material as well, the market is depressed, but it’s cyclical and I’m confident it will go up. I just don’t know when.

Q: Are you able to sell all the recyclables? Does some sit while waiting for the market to improve?

A: Every bit of it is being shipped. After 27 years in this business, those materials that are indeed recyclable are going to the right place.

Q: Portland recently imposed a surcharge on plastic bags from retailers and banned foam food and drink containers. What kind of impact are you seeing as a result?

A: Portland is one of only 54 communities that we deal with, so it’s too soon to tell, but I would think that there will be fewer bags and less foam. You can recycle just about everything if you want to pay the cost and the question is, do you want to recycle at any cost? With foam, I can collect a whole trailer load of foam, but it’s still not going to weigh anything because I’m transporting air and does it make sense to transport air across the country for next to nothing? Plastic bags don’t have air in them. I can actually sort plastic bags and densify the material, but the markets for bags are very limited. There are not that many buyers that want post-consumer bags. Post-consumer bags are more expensive (because they need to be cleaned) and a lot of the bags end up in the environment and end up going airborne very easily. If it goes to the landfill, the wind comes up and takes all those bags and puts them in the trees. Litter is the huge problem with the bags.