WESTBROOK — Recycling contamination has decreased but the problem will still cost the city extra money, according to city Sustainability Coordinator Lynn Leavitt.

Recycling contamination overall has been reduced in the past two years due to education programs and bin “audits,” but dirty recyclables and related new fees will cost the city $6,000 or more a month on top of regular waste and recyclable removal fees, Leavitt said. The rates are scheduled to increase in July.

About 35% of the recyclables residents put in their curbside bins are contaminated on a regular basis, Leavitt said, and that causes recycling company ecomaine to charge the city its highest recycling fees. She hopes continued education efforts can reduce the contamination to 10%-15%, before costs get too high for the city to afford.

“There is a huge financial reason to get contamination down, it’s a massive hit,” Leavitt said.

The city now pays ecomaine’s minimum rate of $79 per ton of recyclables because it is a new customer and is working to improve the contamination, Leavitt said. In July, however, that lower rate will end and the city will be charged $95 per ton and the contamination rate will rise to $79 per ton. If contamination remains at 25%, the total rate will be $174 per ton.

The city put out 113 tons of recyclables in September, Leavitt said, a good representative of their typical waste output.

“When they switch us to $95 a ton, that’s going to cost us roughly $10,742 a month for recycling alone,” Leavitt said. “If we continue to see this level of contamination, we will be paying almost $17,000 a month for recycling with the fee if we can’t lower our contamination rates.”

Reducing contamination to the target 15% could save the city thousands of dollars, Leavitt said.

Over the past year, the city and ecomaine have been tagging recycling bins that contain at least one item that isn’t recyclable or contain recyclables that have not been cleaned and are therefore contaminated. For example, bins with any recyclables like clothes or trash don’t’ make the cut, Leavitt said.

The tags specify the problem the resident needs to address. According to ecomaine’s website, green tags indicate a job well done, yellow tags are for those that need one or two changes and red tags are for contaminated bins. If the contents of a recycling bin were too contaminated, ecomaine did not collect them.

At times entire loads are still so contaminated they have to be trashed, which is why waste companies began increasing recycling fees in the first place, according to Leavitt.

Tagging is done not as frequently during the winter, but the program will more fully resume in the warmer months.

“We’ve tried to get the word out through our own efforts working with cities and community groups to have an impact on the level of contamination,” said ecomaine Communications Manager Matt Grondin. “We’ve seen it work. Before these programs, we were north of 20% contamination all over regularly. We are down now 10%-12%.” 

Leavitt said because most residences with red-tagged bins haven’t changed their habits, education will still play a vital role.

She said she worries about the future of the recycling program if they can’t curb the contamination.

“Recycling programs at this point are on the line when they are costing this much,” Leavitt said. “It’s not off the table for recycling to get canceled in any town. We are doing so much right now to really improve what we have to offer, I’d hate to see this positive thing get lost because the finances won’t work.”

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