Interns Susan Parmelee, left, and Michelle Radley are working with ecomaine this year on an education program in South Portland and Westbrook. Courtesy / EcoMaine

A local recycling awareness campaign by ecomaine is having interns examine residents’ recycle bins.

The nonprofit waste management organization hired two interns for the summer and fall to work in areas in South Portland and Westbrook, where the organization has found more people disposing of non-recyclable items in their bins, according to an Aug. 8 statement describing the program.

In South Portland, the organization has recorded “between 85-90% contamination” at least since April in the areas in question, focusing on the Redbank Village, according to ecomaine spokesperson Matt Grondin.

Westbrook has only started working with the ecomaine on July 1 of this year, but the organization found contamination rates as high as 40% in July of this year in two areas: south of Bridge Street near the Presumpscott River, and between Haskell and Colonial Streets.

The interns were brought on to look for non-recyclable items such as disposable plastic bags or ordinary household trash in bins where there’s “higher levels of contamination.”

Grondin said ecomaine ran a similar pilot program last year in South Portland, Windham, Falmouth and Scarborough, and that the education effort did reduce contamination.

“We did see in those areas last summer a decrease in contamination of about 5%,” he said.

In Westbrook, a post about the program on the city of Westbrook’s Facebrook page prompted two people to complain about privacy. One man, identifying himself as Chris Kimble, said, “I’d really rather not have anyone going through my trash. Sanctioned or not, it’s creepy.”

Another resident, who identified himself as Chris Twomey, said, “Seems like an invasion of privacy from what I read.”

Neither Kimble nor Twomey responded to a request for further comment via Facebook before The Forecaster’s deadline.

According to ecomaine and local sustainability coordinators, the interns, walking ahead of the collection trucks, lift the lids of the bins, and if they see no obvious non-recyclable items, they attach a green tag to the bin. If they find some small items, such as shrink wrap or plastic bags, they will attach a yellow tag informing the resident of which items should not be placed in the bin again. If there is a blatant sign of contamination, such as ordinary trash, they will attach a red tag, which will also signal the collection trucks to skip the bin.

Lynn Leavitt, Westbrook’s sustainability coordinator, said the interns do not touch anything inside the bins unless a large item on top prevents them from seeing into the bin. Most of the time, she said, the interns only lift the bin lids, look, then close them. She also noted the interns are part of an official program. If a privacy issue were to emerge, she said, “They’re probably going to be the first people they look at.”

South Portland Sustainability Director Julie Rosenbach said the program is meant to be educational. In Redbank Village, where the interns are operating, renters move in and out of the area at a rate of 45-50%, she said, so the program serves as a helpful reminder to those who are recycling.

“There’s been a really good response,” she said. “I think it’s being received very well.”

Rosenbach agreed with Leavitt’s assessment of the privacy concerns and underscored that the interns don’t examine anything in the bins too closely.

“We don’t go through people’s trash,” she said. “We just open the bins.”

She noted that the program began as a pilot, with two other interns, in 2019, and that year she got “a few” calls from some concerned residents, but after explaining the program, Rosenbach said, there were no strong objections from anyone. Rosenbach said she did not remember the exact number.

Matt Grondin, a spokesman for ecomaine, also assured the public that the interns are not examining anything closely enough to be a concern.

“There’s no manipulation of the material,” he said. “They’re not going through the container at all.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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