Interns Thorvald Arnell (left) and Julie Gourlay (right) inspected recycling bins for contamination in Scarborough in 2019. This fall, Scarborough will participate in the outreach program once again. Courtesy photo of Matt Grondin

SCARBOROUGH — Beginning this month, ecomaine interns are coming to Scarborough, inspecting residents’ recycling bins as well as providing information and outreach to the community.

On Sept. 21, the Portland-based recycling and waste-to-energy nonprofit announced that the success of an educational outreach program in South Portland and Westbrook this summer has seen the expansion into Scarborough and Portland.

Two interns will tour recycling and trash collection routes in Scarborough, ecomaine said. Residents in these areas will receive a notice when inspections begin.

A release from Scarborough Public Works said that the work will take place on Mondays through October and November.

“During interns’ inspections, they will issue green tags for a job well done, yellow tags for loads that have one or two items that are not recyclable, and red tags for loads with too many items that cannot be recycled – including trash,” ecomaine said. “The bins with red tags are considered contaminated and increase costs for the municipality. Therefore, they will not be picked up.  The tags will identify item(s) that do not belong in the recycling cart — loads with red tags cannot be collected.”

Contamination in recycling means anything that doesn’t belong in the cart, items like plastic bags, Styrofoam, and garbage, which are the most common, Matt Grondin, communications manager for ecomaine said.

“A couple of those items, plastic bags and Styrofoam, have the recycling symbol but aren’t able to go into the carts,” he said. “Plastic bags can’t go into the carts, but they can be taken to the grocery store (to be recycled). I think sometimes items like a garden hose might be made out of vinyl and metal so people toss it in the bin.”

Called “tanglers,” these types of contaminants can cause damage to ecomaine’s sorting mechanism, wasting time and money, Grondin said.

“Without any education or the contaminating program, things like the tanglers can wrap themselves around the sorting mechanism and forces us to shut down,” he said. “We’d have to potentially shut down the plant to clear that stuff out. It’s actual people in a lot of cases who have to climb into those things with box cutters.”

Ecomaine will reject loads with too much contamination because of this, which can cost municipalities money, Grondin said. Towns can also be charged a contamination fee.

Jami Fitch, sustainability coordinator for Scarborough, said that between July 2018 and June 2019, 343 loads were rejected.

“Ecomaine processes contaminated recycling loads as trash,” said Scarborough Public Works. “These loads cost the town an extra $73 per ton. It’s in everyone’s best interest environmentally and financially to recycle correctly.”

In the summer of 2019, Scarborough participated in a similar outreach program, where interns were employed by municipalities and trained at ecomaine’s facility to inspect recycling, Grondin said.

During and after the pilot program, between July 2019 to June 2020, Scarborough saw 50 rejected loads, Fitch said. In July and August of 2020, 26 loads were rejected.

“We piloted the outreach and tagging program with ecomaine in 2019 and saw a significant decrease in contamination and associated fees,” Fitch said. “In recent months, our contamination numbers have started to creep up, so we appreciate the opportunity to work with ecomaine again to provide outreach in our community.”

Throughout this summer’s program in South Portland and Westbrook, ecomaine saw a drop in contamination by 5 percent in eight weeks, Grondin said.

As a way for towns to utilize the outreach program, interns are now employed through ecomaine rather than municipalities, Grondin said.

“This year they’re ecomaine employees, which is a result of us really wanting to continue the program but understanding that the municipal level could be seeing new financial challenges with the pandemic and everything,” he said.

Equipped with the education and information packets, interns will provide education to residents so that they are aware of how to help avoid contamination fees in the future, Grondin said.

“We aren’t in this to penalize,” he said. “We’re in this to educate. If someone were to get a red tag — we don’t give those lightly — that’s reserved for something that’s just straight trash that will reek havoc on an entire load, and then we’re taking the opportunity to educate with the yellow tags. We’re seeing good results.”

Recycling inspectors will be outfitted in PPE masks and gloves, following CDC guidelines, Grondin said. If someone wants educational material but doesn’t feel comfortable speaking to interns, ecomaine can mail information or arrange a drop-off.

Information about what is recyclable is also located at www.ecomaine.org/what-can-be-recycled.

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