Sustainability coordinators from Falmouth, Scarborough, South Portland and Windham in Scarborough Town Hall presenting their interns’ recycling contamination data collection over the summer. On the far left is a representative from EcoMaine. Catherine Bart photo

SCARBOROUGH — Waste management company EcoMaine worked with southern Maine communities over the summer to combat contamination rates in recycling bins, bringing education and awareness directly to homes.

The nonprofit organization worked with four towns — Scarborough, South Portland, Falmouth and Windham — on a pilot program last summer, using interns to collect contamination data from bins in various neighborhoods.

The towns presented their findings to city workers from communities throughout southern Maine on Jan. 30 at Scarborough Town Hall. Staff members and interns who participated in the program explained what worked well and what could be improved.

Split into groups among the four communities, the interns involved in the program were Abby Constantine, Meddy Smith, Julie Gourlay, Thorvald Arnell, Benni Magnusson McComish, Jessica Wibby, Sarah Weden, Molly Skeffington, Lexis Anderson and Margot Chirajath, said Matt Grondin, EcoMaine’s communication manager.

The interns spent 10 weeks collecting curbside recycling data, but they were respectful of the homeowner’s privacy and didn’t rifle through the bins, said South Portland’s sustainability coordinator Lucy Perkins.

Gourlay, an intern from Scarborough, said that she thought EcoMaine did a good job of teaching why certain materials cannot be thrown into the recycling bin, which helped her pass on the knowledge to homeowners.

“Before this program I knew the basic do’s and don’t’s, but EcoMaine really drilled it into our heads, not in a bad way, but just in a very helpful way of what we should and shouldn’t be doing and why some things shouldn’t be in our bin,” she said. “We had very positive interactions with people and I think a reason why is we were able to describe why certain things don’t belong so they could also understand. You kind of just create this whole web and hopefully the numbers will get better.”

Jami Fitch, Scarborough’s sustainability coordinator, said that the program cost the town around $5,500, but by using a grant from Walmart, she was able to decrease that by half for the 2019 year.

She said that she sent her two interns to 446 homes throughout the 10 weeks.

“Our interns were consistently chatting with people as they came to drop off their materials,” she said. “There were a lot of plastic bags. Other random things were paper towels — those are not recyclable, napkins, things like that. After our pilot we saw a 7 percent decrease, that is town wide.”

Perkins said that contamination had been a growing concern for various town officials, and the pilot program helped save money for the city.

“We projected we might see $100,000 of damage in contamination this year,” she said.

When there is too much contamination, EcoMaine will reject truckloads, said the presenters.

“We saved about 55 percent of contamination fee in the months of the internship,” said Perkins. “Folks wanted to learn and wanted to do the right thing.”

South Portland’s contamination average was around 28 percent before the pilot program, she said, and after the program, the average went down to 22 percent. The four interns managed to visit a total of 2,259 homes.

Besides the interns, the sustainability coordinators in each community used EcoMaine’s “Recycling do’s and don’t’s” list to educate people about what can’t be put in the recycling bins.

Interns look inside a recycling container in South Portland on Thursday. From left are Benni McComish, Jess Wibby, Meddy Smith and Sarah Weden. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Falmouth Sustainability Coordinator Kimberly Darling said that she found interactive versions of posters to be more effective.

“So I blew up the do and don’t list and I actually glued some items that were contaminants onto the poster,” she said. “I put these at town hall, public works and community programs. People think the rules for recycling have changed and that’s not true at all. The markets have changed, and that’s a good lesson to have up front.”

People have a better understanding of what contamination looks like if they can see it, Darling said.

EcoMaine CEO Kevin Roche explained that the market for recycling is changing but recycling is not dying or going away for good.

With markets in China, which previously took much of the United States’ materials, vanishing, Roche said that the challenge now is to find new markets and educate people on how to properly recycle.

“The attention to recycling is vitally important,” he said. “Landfills are one of the largest emitters of methane gas. We’re not talking enough about what we’re putting into the landfills that will be there forever.”

The presenters said that communities considering the program should make sure that their interns can keep up with the recycling trucks and let homeowners know about the program beforehand.

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