PORTLAND — Interacting one-on-one with residents to explain how the recycling process works was key to the success of a four-community program designed to reduce contamination in recycling loads, according to interns who worked on the project over the summer.

Falmouth’s recycling interns conduct a visual inspection of a recycling bin earlier this summer. Their job was to help the town reduce its overall rate of contaminated recyclables. Contributed

With changes in the global recycling market and a marked increase in recycling contamination, communities across Maine are experiencing increased costs for disposing of recycling, which prompted the municipalities of Falmouth, South Portland, Scarborough and Windham to join forces to see what could be done to reduce their overall contamination rates.

All four communities belong to ecomaine, the Portland-based nonprofit waste management organization, which also partnered on the internship program this summer.

Last week the South Portland interns informed the City Council that they saw “clear improvement” over the course of the summer, a message that was reflected in similar presentations recently by the interns in Falmouth and Windham.

Jami Fitch, the sustainability coordinator in Scarborough, said Tuesday that she likely won’t have a report ready for review until late September or early October, but she echoed what the interns from the other three communities said.

Fitch said the program was generally “pretty positive and it certainly got folks talking about what is recyclable and what isn’t.”

For the month of July, she said, the town saw its contamination rate drop from an average of 26% to 20%, which saved taxpayers money.

Scarborough’s recycling interns, Thorvald Arnell, left, and Julie Gourlay helped the town save money on contaminated recycling loads this summer. Contributed

For example, Fitch said, in January, Scarborough paid $10,000 to ecomaine for contaminated recycling that went into the trash incinerator. In July, the cost had dropped to about $1,500.

“That’s a significant difference,” she said.

In addition to hiring the summer interns, whose main job was tagging recycling bins with either green, yellow or red stickers to indicate the quality of the recycling load, the communities are also trying various ways to reach residents and encourage them to think more about what they put into their recycling bins.

Even so, during presentations in Falmouth, South Portland and Windham last week, the interns urged community leaders to do more, including continuing or expanding the ticketing program and the one-on-one interactions with residents.

Other ways to increase awareness, they said, would be through the use of social media, and by highlighting the waste hierarchy, which calls on people to first reduce how much they either put in the trash or recycle.

The Falmouth interns also suggested a public pledge of some kind, while in Windham the interns suggested more informative signs and monitoring of the “silver bullet” recycling containers, including possibly adding cameras.

Although there are other ways to reach residents about the importance of recycling correctly, the Falmouth interns, Lexie Anderson and Margo Chirayath, said the most effective way to spread the message is in person.

The city of South Portland hired four interns this summer to help it with one-on-one outreach to residents about the importance of recycling properly. Courtesy city of South Portland

Kimberly Darling, Falmouth’s sustainability coordinator, agreed and this week said “human interaction has huge advantages; you can’t beat face-to-face communication.”

The interns told the Town Council Aug. 12 that in walking through various neighborhoods in Falmouth, they were able to have positive discussions with residents that helped clarify the recycling guidelines and alleviate misconceptions about what can be recycled.

“We saw a lot of progress,” over the course of the summer they said last week.

The most common contaminants they saw, according to the Falmouth interns, were plastic bags and paper towels. They tagged more than 600 recycling bins and said they began to “grade harder” as the summer went on.

While plastic bags were a common contaminant across all four communities, the Windham interns said they found things in the recycling that made no sense, from Christmas lights to wood, to pieces of a dishwasher, as well as ski boots, pillows and food waste.

That’s why they said a priority for the town should be more public interaction to reach more neighborhoods. “The biggest thing is helping people understand the broader context,” they said.

“Knowledge is power,” Darling added. “Once people fully understand, the light bulb goes off. Most people have great intentions and having more information really changes behavior. People really can be proactive and they want to do the right thing.”

In Falmouth, she said, the contamination rate for recyclables going to ecomaine dropped from a high of 12% earlier this year to 7% in the latest reporting period.

While there is still more work to do, the South Portland interns said it was a thrill to see the number of green-tagged recycling bins increase as the summer went on.

It’s unclear whether all four communities will continue with the recycling intern program, but Julie Rosenbach, the sustainability coordinator in South Portland, told the City Council Aug. 13 that “our best outreach and education is at the point of contact, right at the bin.”

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