Solid waste is expensive for towns to collect, process and dispose. Raw materials, from copper, aluminum and lithium to wood products and plastic, are becoming rarer and more expensive. The densest geologic sources of copper, for example, have already been mined, so extraction is more expensive, since a higher amount of rock must be processed to produce the same amount of copper. Aluminum is one of the most energy-intensive metals to extract from rock and concentrate into usable metal. When I occasionally buy bottled drinks, I purchase them in glass jars which can be ground up and reused to fill in potholes or added to pavement or cement making. I use the least amount of aluminum I can, rewash all my aluminum foil and haven’t bought any aluminum foil for probably two decades.

In the past 30 years, most Maine municipal landfills have been closed, leaving only one state-owned landfill, one commercial landfill and several municipal landfills where municipal trash can safely be buried. Four incinerators still accept municipal waste to burn and generate electricity, with the ash being buried in specific toxic waste landfills at a higher cost rate.

What would happen if we changed our thinking as a consumer society towards reduce, repair, reuse and recycle to greatly decrease the amount and cost of waste disposal?

Since running out of landfill space in 1990, Holland, a small country in Europe, has focused on repurposing materials for other uses before disposing of them. Most materials are banned from landfills and each town must provide a space for residents to sort their trash into containers for reuse or reforming into new products. Demolition debris, a large part of American disposal needs, is taken apart separately and wood collected for future building. Car parts are repaired or melted down to make new parts. Organic and food wastes — or 20% of Maine trash — is composted at home or collected separately, composted and sold by towns to farmers and landscapers. Since 2000, the amount of waste that Dutch people recycled grew from 50% to 88%, including waste incinerated to produce electricity.

The Dutch government has adopted a system of producer responsibility for reducing packaging and making it recyclable. Their enforcement system is strongly implemented to conserve landfill space for only products that can’t be repaired, reformed or reused. By 1985, the amount of waste that got landfilled in Holland was already only 35%, and by 2010, only 2.3% of waste was landfilled. The country’s goal is to create a circular economy in which new materials do not need to be imported, since all resources are completely recirculated back into the economy.

Let’s take inspiration from the focused success of Holland in minimizing waste production. Last year, the Maine Legislature passed a producer responsibility law that in several years intends to reduce packaging volume in Maine and make producers pay for more of the packaging disposal costs. Towns will be reimbursed from producers for some of their trash disposal and recycling processing costs. Mainers can start now by buying products that have the least packaging or are contained in paperboard, paper bags or types of plastic that ecomaine or Casella accepts from your town for recycling.

The types of plastics and other materials that Brunswick, Topsham, Harpswell and Bath accept vary. Harpswell and Brunswick accept plastic products #1 through #7, excluding plastic bags, which you can reuse or recycle at Hannaford. You can find the lists of what recycling products your town collects on your town’s website. Under, choose “Recycling and Trash.” The Harpswell Anchor has a great article titled “Trash Talk 101: How to use the Recycling Center and Transfer Station.” You can find this on the Harpswell town website.

If you take your trash to your town’s transfer station, ask for a paper listing recycled products they accept from your transfer station operators. If you use a trash disposal service that doesn’t collect recyclables, please take responsibility to bring your recyclables to the transfer station to do your part in sorting out useful materials. Since you can recycle for free, this saves you money on trash bags, reduces fossil fuel spills and emissions, and recovers limited natural resources.

Nancy Chandler studied Animal Behavior and Anthropology at Stanford University, then received her master’s in biology education in her home state of North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. She is passionate about teaching energy conservation and hopes to get you thinking about how to use energy use efficiently to save both money and reduce greenhouse warming gases.

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