KATRINA VENHUIZEN, environmental educator for ecomaine, distinguishes between recyclable and not recyclable goods. Since China stopped importing many recyclables in January, ecomaine has ramped up education about recycling. EMILY COHEN / THE TIMES RECORD

KATRINA VENHUIZEN, environmental educator for ecomaine, distinguishes between recyclable and not recyclable goods. Since China stopped importing many recyclables in January, ecomaine has ramped up education about recycling. EMILY COHEN / THE TIMES RECORD


Reduce, reuse, recycle. But please, do it correctly.

That was the message at an ecomaine talk Monday at the Freeport Community Library, where Freeport residents learned about the contamination issue plaguing recycling markets and how they can do their part to reduce the burden.

China, the longtime leading buyer of recyclable goods, implemented its “National Sword” policy in January, which severely limited the acceptable proportion of trash contained in volumes of recyclable materials — called contamination. It eventually imposed an all-out ban on more than 50 types of recyclable imports, and global markets for recyclables have taken a hit like never before.

“Recycling markets have always come and gone,” said Katrina Venhuizen, ecomaine environmental educator, during the event in Freeport. “There have been highs, there have been lows, always. But this time is different. We’ve been calling it unprecedented. It’s not going away.”

For years, China would accept recyclables with contamination levels as high as 40 percent, said ecomaine Communications Manager Matt Grondin. Citing concern for pollution in its own land, however, the Chinese national government announced last summer that it would limit contamination to just 0.5 percent of imports.

“That threw the recyclable markets into a little bit of chaos, and forced everyone across the world, not just ecomaine but throughout the United States, to really think about contamination, start thinking about contamination rate,” Grondin said in a phone interview prior to the event, “and driving them down as far as possible so we can continue to get material out to the markets so that it can be recycled.”

Paper was the only recyclable that ecomaine — a Portland based nonprofit that processes and sorts the recycling of 73 communities (including Freeport, Pownal and Woolwich) and 400,000 people in Maine — exported to China. The paper it receives is too contaminated for Maine-based or American companies to recycle, said Venhuizen; all other recyclables were and continue to be recycled domestically.

But paper makes up approximately 60 percent of all of what ecomaine processes, and before the ban China imported 55 percent of the world’s paper for recycling, leaving ecomaine grasping for buyers as prices and revenues plunged. This time last year, ecomaine made $110 per 2,000-pound bale of paper, while this year the organization must pay $60 per bale just to get it taken away.

The organization does not fault China for creating this policy, said Venhuizen.

“We see it as a fair thing, because they were getting too much junk,” she said. “We were sending (a bale) to them, and only 90, 80 or 70 percent of it was actually recyclable. Well, they’re paying for 100 percent, but if they’re getting only 70 percent you can see how they’re getting a raw deal.”

Better recycling through education

While it may be difficult to bring contamination down to China’s new levels, the policy has pushed ecomaine to better educate its clients through events like the one in Freeport.

Freeport resident John Hoy attended the talk with an interest in what happens to your stuff once it’s out of your hands, but also with a sense of duty to his community.

“I don’t think it’s work,” he said of recycling. “I think it’s part of our civic responsibility to monitor what we do and what’s going on with it, which means coming to meetings like this and learning whatever is going on.

“It’s a fascinating story and I think that the alternative of just throwing stuff in a hole in the ground,” Hoy added, “it’s just not OK.”

Venhuizen detailed the sorting process at ecomaine’s Portland plant in order to show attendees the ways that unwanted goods can junk up, or even break, the machinery. She stressed that ecomaine’s purpose is to accept recyclable goods and sort them. It is not intended nor equipped to sort out trash, which can make up nearly half of the waste that it receives. ecomaine has taken measures to deal with contamination, from adding employees to slowing down the conveyor belt, both of which can decrease efficiency, while increasing costs. Despite several rounds of sorting and continuous surveillance, stray pieces of trash still sometimes end up in the finished bales.

“It is a manual process and the contamination does have to be taken out by hand,” said Venhuizen. “It is a huge, huge undertaking.”

Some trash may seem benign, like a bocce ball or a pair of shoes. Others are annoying and slow down the process, like sheets and other “tanglers” that get caught in the gears of the belt.

It can also be downright dangerous: Sheets can catch on fire, and propane tanks, when compressed, can as well. Large pieces of metal inappropriate for single-stream recycling can cut conveyor belts in half, as two did within one month at the ecomaine facility. It cost the organization $20,000 to repair them.

Since May 14 of this year, ecomaine has been documenting contamination in its intake from each community. Depending on the level of contamination, communities will be charged a penalty, ranging from $35 per ton for loads that contain between six and 10 percent contaminants by volume, to $70.50 per ton for loads that contain 26 percent or more. ecomaine’s owner communities like Freeport, which are communities that funded the startup of ecomaine in the 1970s, have not yet been charged the fees, though Venhuizen warns that if contamination levels continue at their current rate, they, too, will have to pay. Between May 14 and July 25, Freeport’s recycling have contained as little as zero percent contaminants and as high as 40 percent.


It all starts at home, Venhuizen said, where “wishcycling” has been on the rise.

“It’s the process of, ‘Oh, I have this thing, I really want it to be recycled. I’m going to put it in and hope for the best.’ Or ‘I’m going to put it in because someone knows better than I do,’” she explained. “It’s the process of putting something in your recycling bin, hoping it will get recycled.”

A couple of common mistakes Venhuizen noted: The plastic lids of milk cartons are not recyclable on their own; keep them attached to the carton, or throw them out. Flatten out aluminum foil; it makes it easier for the machine to sort it correctly. Containers should be emptied, but need not be spotless; just take a knife to scrape out as much peanut butter or yogurt as possible. ecomaine cannot recycle flimsy plastic goods like bags or bubble wrap; plasticfilmrecycling.org has a search function that lists places including Hannaford or Walmart where that kind of plastic waste is collected to be recycled. ecomaine has also created a “Recyclopedia,” available on its website and mobile app.

Though Hoy said he likely won’t remember all of the tips Venhuizen gave on Monday, he will likely take advantage of ecomaine’s resources to hold himself accountable in the future.

“I think the idea of just helping the ecomaine people do their thing, like keep the containers large enough, don’t throw in lids — it’s really basic,” Hoy said.

Though the topic of the talk was recycling, Venhuizen took the opportunity to remind attendees of the first two steps in the old adage, which should take precedent to reduce the overall volume of trash and contaminants: Reduce and reuse.

“Whenever you can, reduce. Whenever and wherever you can, reuse,” she said. “Recycling is just the third step.”

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