Trash is cleared at the Graham Road Landfill in Brunswick. (Times Record File Photo)

BRUNSWICK  Three months after the town tasked the Recycling and Sustainability Committee with finding a solution for Brunswick’s mounting recycling costs, the committee presented a recommendation to the town council: Keep doing what you’re doing, but do it smarter.  

The committee recommended that the town continue curbside collection of recyclables but launch a “comprehensive waste reduction and education program.”  

The suggestion comes after town manager John Eldridge announced during the budget season that the town’s trash and recycling costs are expected to triple in 2020jumping from $40 per ton to $120 per ton, or about $138,000 overall.  

Brunswick recycles with Pine Tree Waste, which provides weekly curbside collection of trash and recyclables under a one-year contract through the end of June 2020 with two one-year extensions, according to a letter to the town council from Committee Chairman Mike Wilson and Public Works Director Jay Astle.  

Residents can also drop off recyclables at the Graham Road landfill for free, and commercial establishments can drop off recyclables at Pine Tree’s facility in West Bath for a fee.  

The town previously had a flat rate for recyclables, but Pine Tree has altered the cost structure to include a variable rate for disposal of recyclables instead of the flat rate the town was charged in its previous contracts … This new cost structure is a reflection of the altered landscape in the global recycling market,” the letter stated.  

“This is a flexible, fluid situation, it changes almost daily,” Wilson told the town council Monday.  

The recommendations have not officially been adopted by the council. 

“The town will issue a Request for Proposals for Curbside Collection and Disposal of Trash and Recyclables in the coming weeks in order to have a contract that will go into effect after the Graham Road landfill is scheduled to close in late Spring 2021,” he and Astle wrote in the recommendation. 

Astle said at the meeting that Brunswick could be a good fit for a company like South Portland-based ecomaine, and that there have been some conversations, but the transportation distance could prove to be a barrier.  

The committee recommends the town continue residential curbside pickup and disposal by a contractor, despite the increased cost, while increasing public education about acceptable materials for recycling to reduce contamination, which is a significant factor in the disposal cost increase.  

In 2017, the Chinese government decided to stop taking highly contaminated recycling from the United States and placed restrictions on certain recyclables, accepting materials with only 0.5% contamination, a drastic decrease from its previous 40%. Comparatively, the industry standard for contamination is around 5%, according to Matt Grondin, communications manager for ecomaine. 

Committee members also suggested including an alternate bid option in the request for proposals in which a contractor can offer a financial incentive to reduce contamination. The new contractors will be encouraged to sticker and refuse to collect incorrectly prepared or contaminated recyclables. They also recommended a comprehensive town-wide waste reduction plan. The education and waste reduction plans will include not only what residents can and cannot recycle, but also tips for reusing items and composting food.  

The committee considered other alternatives, including eliminating curbside collection, switching to dual-stream recycling, collecting every two weeks instead of every week or even collecting and marketing recyclables as a municipality, but each “had some combination of shifting costs, increasing costs, significant steps backward from where our community is today with recycling, or questions about a contractor’s ability and interest in meeting our needs.”  

While the recommendation may not provide any immediate solution, according to Grondin, education campaigns work — so much so that ecomaine has two full-time staff members dedicated to educating people in Maine about what is and is not recyclable, and why it is needed. This year, the company is also awarding School Recycling Grants to its member communities, designed to raise recycling awareness in schools and to help schools implement more efficient recycling programs or add composting to their waste collection. 

“We think education absolutely works,” Grondin said, whether it is curbside, at the transfer station or at a meeting. Last year ecomaine’s education campaign reached 38,000 people, he said.  

This summer, in partner communities Windham, Falmouth, Scarborough and South Portland, ecomaine had interns mark recycling bins on one or two routes, indicating whether the homes were “recycling superstars,” Grondin said, or needed to work on sorting. In the twomonth span of the program, recycling contamination in Falmouth dropped 2%. In Scarborough it dropped 7%; in South Portland, 3% and in Windham, 5%, just from tagging a few routes, Grondin said.  

“As much as we wish it weren’t the case, not everything is recyclable,” he said. 

Items like paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass can be repurposed in the marketplace, while things like soccer balls, garden hoses and chains cannot. When those items and others that are not in demand, find their way into the recycling stream it drives the rates up. The most common culprit though is plastic bags, he said in an earlier interview.  

Town Councilor Kathy Wilson said Monday she was “pretty gosh darn sure that I mess up my own recycling,” and “trying like the devil to recycle as much as possible. 

“We have yet to be educated as to what really can go into the recycling and that won’t contaminate it,” she said. 

Astle agreed, adding that “10 years ago we would just throw whatever (into recycling) in the hopes it would make it through” because back then, higher rates of contamination were acceptable. “Now that has drastically changed,” he said, “and educating and being more diligent is absolutely important.” 

This market 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 about 722,000 tons of municipal solid waste (not counting construction and demolition debris), and recycled and composted almost 445,000 tons in 2017, leaving the state with a 38.09% municipal solid waste recycling rate, an increase from 36.79% in 2016. The goal is to recycle or compost 50% by 2021.  

The overall value of recycled waste is also decreasing, as there are fewer newspapers being recycled, flexible packaging is replacing glass and rigid plastic, 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.  

According to Recycling Reform for Maine, an initiative of the Natural Resource Council of Maine, Maine taxpayers pay an estimated $16 million to $17 million each year to finance recycling.  

The committee recommends joining the resource council in supporting an Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging law endorsed by the legislature. This law would give producers of packaging materials a direct economic incentive to produce less-wasteful packaging that can easily be managed by municipal recycling programs.  

“Having shared responsibility between those who create the waste and those who manage the waste would foster recycling system improvements and enable greater participation in recycling across Maine,” the organization stated. Plus, it is “an insurance policy for Maine municipalities when global recycling markets are unfavorable. The current approach to recycling is not resilient to fluctuations in the global recycling market. Maine’s cities, towns, and taxpayers are currently footing the bill for a problem they didn’t create. With recycling reform, taxpayers will no longer pay for the cost of recycling since the net costs of recycling would be reimbursed—and the packaging manufacturers that produce less- wasteful, more recyclable packaging would pay less than those who do not.” 

For more information on what can and cannot be recycled, visit the ecomaine “recyclopedia.”  

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