BRUNSWICK — The international recycling market has all but collapsed, Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge told the town council recently, and now Brunswick, Freeport, Topsham and towns across the country are struggling to keep up with the costs.

Brunswick’s trash and recycling budget is $332,000 for the current fiscal year, with costs around $80 per ton for trash and about $40 per ton for recycling, Eldridge said at a meeting last month. Next year, the cost of recycling is expected to increase to $120 per ton and Brunswick has budgeted up to $470,000 to cover that increase.

Gulls scatter around a bulldozer at Brunswick’s Graham Road Landfill in this 2014 file photo. (John Swinconeck / Times Record file photo)

In an effort to trim down the municipal budget, which currently carries a 1.63% tax increase, Eldridge suggested suspending the sale of recyclables and taking the cheaper method of disposal. If the market for recycling only increases to about $80 per ton they would continue to send it to the recycling plant, but if the market does increase to the projected $120, he suggested sending it to the landfill, although residents would still put the recycling in their recycling bins. This would save the town an estimated $40,000.

Town councilors did not support the idea.

Councilor Dan Jenkins said he felt is “sends the wrong message to the town, to the kids. We’re trying to set an example here. … We preach reduce, reuse recycle. I just imagine a 6-year-old walking out with a bunch of cardboard thinking it’s going to be recycled and it’s going to go sit in a landfill somewhere. That doesn’t make me feel good.”

Topsham, too, is going to see an increase of about $40 per ton to $120, The Times Record reported. Town Manager Rich Roedner said the town will continue the recycling program another year before weighing changes.

Freeport, which, like Pownal and Woolwich, recycles through waste company ecomaine, will see a somewhat less drastic increase. 

As what ecomaine Communications Manager Matt Grondin called an “owner community,” Freeport previously did not have to pay tipping fees — charges for waste received at processing facilities and dumps — for recycling, just money for contamination costs. However, in an effort to “come in line with the cost of doing business,” the town will have to pay $35 per ton starting July 1. Last year, Freeport contributed 830 tons of recycled materials, with a roughly 13% contamination rate, down from about 15% the year before, according to Grondin.

Next year, town officials are projecting they will have about 1,000 tons of recyclables, and factoring in estimated contamination fee, the town has budgeted for a $50,000 increase, Finance Director Jessica Maloy said.

Freeport officials are “exploring ideas to mitigate impact,” she said, and cautioned residents to “be diligent in recycling” to help reduce contamination fees.

According to Grondin, the most common culprits are plastic bags, which can’t be processed at recycling facilities.

This change comes at a time when more Mainers are starting to recycle. According to the Maine Solid Waste Generation And Disposal Capacity Report, Mainers generated 721,646 tons of municipal solid waste (not counting construction and demolition debris), and recycled and composted 444,056 tons in 2017, leaving the state with a 38% municipal solid waste recycling rate, an increase from 36.8% in 2016. The goal is to recycle or compost 50% by 2021.

These increased recycling costs are being felt around the world, largely because of a 2017 decision by the Chinese government to stop taking highly contaminated recycling and place restrictions on certain recyclables, including mixed paper like magazines, office paper, junk mail and most plastics. For years, China would accept recyclables with contamination levels as high as 40%, but in 2017 announced it would accept just 0.5%.

While Grondin said it was understandable, he said it was also very restrictive, given that the industry standard for contamination rate is 5%. The average contamination across ecomaine’s communities is about 11%, down from 15% or 16% in recent years.

The overall value of recycled waste is also decreasing, as there are fewer newspapers being recycled, flexible packaging is replacing glass and rigid plastics, and cardboard is increasing with the popularity of online shopping, according to the 2019 Maine State Solid Waste Management and Recycling Plan.

The changed economics of recycling have caused many municipalities in Maine to consider curtailing or eliminating their programs. Some communities have faced steep increases in costs for recycling services from private-sector companies; when these costs are greater than the cost of disposal some are opting to suspend recycling services, at least until recycling is less costly than disposal,” according to the report.

At a Freeport event in July, Katrina Venhuizen, ecomaine environmental educator, said that “Recycling markets have always come and gone. … 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 more information on what can and cannot be recycled, visit the ecomaine “recyclopedia.”

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