Dirty recycled materials cause waste companies to treat whole recycle loads as trash. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK — The city is looking to reduce costly recycling contamination by using a program that has been successful in neighboring communities.

Leavitt

Sustainability Coordinator Lynn Leavitt said she’d like to employ interns to check residents’ recyclable bins and then inform the residents when they were disposing of materials that aren’t recyclable or are unacceptable because they havem’t been cleaned.

But in order to cost-effectively use paid interns, the city must first find out which recycling routes have the most contaminated recycling bins, and it hopes to create a regular “recycling audit” to identify those areas, Leavitt said.

Casella Waste Systems has been charging the city roughly $5,000 a month over the past year to dispose of unacceptable recycled material collected from recycling bins. The items have been contaminated with food waste, for example, or they are not allowed in the first place, such as electronics. That fee comes on top of the $25,000 the city pays per month for regular waste removal, according to City Administrator Jerre Bryant.

“We looked at some other towns who tried out a pilot program and it was successful, but we couldn’t have enough interns to do the entire city, so we have to find out the best placement for them,” Leavitt said.

Interns in Windham,  Falmouth, Scarborough and South Portland patrolled those communities’ recycling bins last summer, sticking colored tags on bins to grade residents’ sorting performance. The residents then typically corrected their own actions.

South Portland reduced contamination in its targeted areas by 55 percent, said that city’s sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach.

“It went extremely well,” Rosenbach said. “We covered 25 percent of residents in the city, and that’s a big percentage for (the interns) to tag, and they did great.”

Rosenbach said South Portland residents enjoyed the interns and were happy to learn how they did at recycling and what they were doing wrong.

South Portland uses ecomaine for waste management, a company that offers recycling contamination audits regularly to point out problem areas, and that made it easy for the interns to get right to work. Westbrook officials are working with Casella to create an audit that will provide information on the trouble spots.

“We are working something out. Once we know where to target, we should be able to reduce contamination much more effectively,” Leavitt said.

In previous years, Westbrook and other cities only had to pay for disposal of trash.  Waste management companies did not charge to accept recyclables, even those that were contaminated, because they could sell that material overseas at a profit. A tougher recyclable market now, however, has put an end to that practice.

“About two years ago, China decided that it was going to set new standards for the import of recyclables and how much contamination they could contain,” said Casella Vice President Joe Fusco. “They chose a number of one-half of 1%, or it would be rejected. That number is beyond the capability of any technology or process that exists today.”

After the regulation change, the market for recyclable material collapsed, Fusco added.

“The average price of paper dropped 90 percent, and the overall value of recyclable commodities, paper, plastic and all other things, dropped about 65 percent. Now, that’s an economic problem,” Fusco said.

About 50 tons of recyclable material comes out of Westbrook each week, Leavitt said. Of that, only about 20-30 tons actually get recycled, and the city is being charged for the incineration or landfilling of the contaminated batches.

“We tried to educate people before, and when we did we did saw a drop in contamination,” Leavitt said. “It is hard though. That number went right (back) up, so it takes time and effort to reduce (contamination).”

The first thing to do is educate people about what can and cannot be recycled, she and Fusco said.

“We have to stop the problem where it begins, the mudroom or right in the bin,” Fusco said. “Homeowners, municipalities, companies, have grown complacent on what is recyclable. … We need to learn what to toss out and recycle better.”

Comments are not available on this story.