Recycling used to be something for environmentalists to do when they wanted to be kind to the planet.

But that changed when landfill space started getting scarce and disposal costs climbed. Then separating recyclable materials from their trash became something that thrifty people did to be kind to themselves, reducing their bills by reducing the volume of what they would have had to pay to have it buried or burned.

Trash processors could then collect the recyclables and sell them as commodities on a worldwide market, offsetting overall costs.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that is now under threat because there has been a global decline in demand for glass, plastic, aluminum and paper, drying up the market for these goods, and reducing revenue for processing companies like EcoMaine, a regional trash-to-energy plant in Portland. Its management is considering raising the fees it charges to municipal and private haulers, which will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher taxes or fees.

The loss of the “recycling discount” will be tough to take for property owners who have gotten used to controlling their costs by being a little more careful with their trash, but it’s not the end of the world. There are still ways that households can control their trash disposal bill by putting less into the waste stream.

Remember, recycling is only one of the “Three Rs” of waste management. The other two are “reuse” and “reduce.”

Consumers can have an impact on their trash bill by buying products that have minimal packaging and using durable containers, like cloth shopping bags or steel “to go” water bottle and coffee cups. Composting food scraps, where practicable, requires no work or special equipment, and it reduces the amount of trash that gets dragged to the curb or transfer station.

And consumers who want to benefit from recycling have to be willing to buy products made from recycled materials. If there is no market for these goods, there will be no market for the used paper, metal and plastic that was taken out of the waste stream.

Local governments and regional waste facilities should promote these activities before they increase the cost of recycling.

It took a long time for the public to get used to separating recyclable materials, but once they changed their behavior there were measurable results.

Consumers can learn that there are other ways to cut the amount of waste they send to be disposed of, and in doing so, cut the costs of disposal.


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