Recycling Progress Report: Recycling numbers down, but some good news

(from Maine Townsman, July 2006)
By Doug Rooks, Freelance Writer

More than a decade ago, Maine set a goal of recycling at least 50 percent of its waste stream — a goal it has yet to reach, although the Legislature has extended the deadline several times. With disposal costs rising and new environmental laws taking effect, the state has decided to take another look at its waste management efforts.

Adapting a bill submitted by State Senator Scott Cowger (LD 1777), the Legislature created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Solid Waste Management, which could be the most comprehensive look at the topic since the landmark 1989 Solid Waste Management Act. That statute, among other things, expanded the bottle bill and banned new private landfills.

The commission, due to report back to the Legislature by January 1, 2007, is expected to examine how recycling fits into the overall picture. The commission’s House chair is Rep. Robert Duschesne (D-Hudson), joined by Rep. Joanne Twomey (D-Biddeford) and Rep. Lillian O'Brien (D-Lewiston) and public member Gregory Lounder of Ellsworth. Sen. John Martin (D-Aroostook) will be the Senate chair, joined by Tom Sawyer of Bangor and Kevin Roche of Portland as public members. Representatives of the Department of Environmental Protection and the State Planning Office will also serve.

Sam Morris, a planner with SPO, says his agency welcomes the scrutiny the commission will provide, and said that Maine is at a turning point in considering how best to handle its waste stream.

George McDonald, SPO’s director of Community Assistance Programs, said that the state aims to provide efficient disposal, reduce hazardous waste, and protect the environment — goals that are not always easy to reconcile.

At the moment, the state is recycling 35 percent of its waste, down from a peak of 42 percent five years ago. The reason for the apparent drop, Morris said, is twofold. First, “We have better numbers,” he said, which are now cross-checked from different sources, including town offices, commercial haulers, and disposal sites. In its early reports on municipal recycling efforts, SPO found some suspiciously high percentages.

The second reason is a “dramatic increase” in construction debris, thanks to a statewide construction boom, Morris said, adding that when a commodity first begins a surge in the waste stream, “it takes time to figure out how to handle it.” DEP recently approved rules to allow burning of construction debris in incinerators, and the state is also looking at other ways to reduce debris volume.

Even as the Blue Ribbon Commission begins meeting, however, Maine continues various efforts to throw away less and recycle more. These include new regulations on electronic waste, voluntary efforts to increase composting, and the opening of the state’s first permanent collection point for household hazardous waste.

No More Throwaways

One of the most noticeable recent changes for towns and cities came on July 1 — the deadline to begin recycling CRT (cathode ray tube) devices, principally televisions and computers. Under legislation approved in 2004, towns have the job of diverting CRTs from the waste stream, but the financial responsibility rests chiefly with manufacturers of the devices. CRTs typically contain lead, mercury and other substances that make them unsuitable for disposal in landfills or incinerators.

Carole Cifrino, an environmental specialist in DEP’s Solid Waste Product Management Program, said the startup seems to have gone reasonably smooth. The financial responsibility of manufacturers began in January, and the first quarterly billings for recycled units already collected have gone out.

Unlike a similar program for mercury switches, which faced an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge from automobile manufacturers, the electronics industry seems have largely accepted the new law. “Some of the manufacturers like to emphasize their planned stewardship,” Cifrino said, and were more receptive to the state’s plan, which they saw as working in favor of their corporate policies.

Several other states have also acted to ban disposal of electronic devices, including California, which has “a much more complicated” system, she said. Maryland funds its program through a manufacturer registration fee, which, however, does not cover the full cost, while Washington requires manufacturers to participate directly in retrieval of their products.

A key to consumer acceptance of the e-waste ban is keeping costs at the landfill or transfer station reasonable. “Handling usually costs $2 to $4 an item,” Cifrino said, “but the total cost of processing is more like $15.” Under Maine’s law, manufacturers absorb most of the cost of recycling their products.

Empirical evidence for the theory behind the law is provided by the Tri-Community Landfill, a facility in Aroostook County owned by Caribou, Fort Fairfield and Limestone that also serves another 33 communities.

Mark Draper, Tri-Community’s solid waste director, said that when the state’s universal waste policy went into effect in 2002, the agency’s board of directors decided to handle universal waste, including e-waste, the same way from all sources, residential and commercial, rather than waiting for the deadlines established by DEP. The ban on residential disposal this July was the last to take effect. As a result, Tri-Community has been culling computers and televisions for several years. Other common universal waste items that need to be recycled are fluorescent tubes from light fixtures.

Initially, Tri-Community charged $4 or less per item to encourage people to get used to bringing them in. Then, in 2004, it raised fees to $14 for screens smaller than 25 inches and $24 for larger units. While the volume of components didn’t decrease, there was a noticeable amount of roadside dumping, particularly of TV sets.

This year, with implementation of the manufacturer payments, the fees are back to $4 and volume has tripled, Draper said. The equation is simple, he said: “People don’t like to pay a lot to get rid of things.”

In some of the smaller towns Tri-Community serves, it has permitted towns to accumulate electronic items that can be picked up several times a year. Draper expects such agreements to expand in the future: “It’s difficult to convince people to drive 30-40 miles just to drop off an old computer.”

Draper said the landfill’s board of directors is also working on a plan that would bring all components of computers, including keyboards and mouses, under a single fee. While the latter items have fewer toxic substances, they do sometimes include lead solder and other contaminants.

Compost Challenges

Handling food waste and other organic substances isn’t popular with many homeowners. While recycling cans, non-returnable glass, paper and cardboard is now routine in many communities, excess food would seem to define the word “garbage” for many Mainers.

Yet food waste and yard waste are a huge part of the waste stream — an estimated 25 percent in all – “and we simply can’t ignore them,” said George McDonald at SPO.

In addition to their volume, organics are inappropriate for combustion — they don’t burn well at all — and they are almost entirely recyclable through the chemical processes known as composting.

McDonald, along with representatives from DEP, the Department of Agriculture, and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, has been part of a multi-agency task force called the Compost Team for 10 years. The team gets involved in everything from dead whales — such as the sperm whale recently found off Mount Desert Island — to encouraging backyard compost piles.

McDonald said that getting a handle on organic waste is essential if Maine is ever to reach the 50 percent recycling goal. The Compost Team has been spreading the word through dozens of workshops around the state, and through a more intensive course called the Compost School, held twice a year at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.

And while the best means of handling organics is still backyard composting, there are other ways to handle the material many homeowners don’t want to deal with themselves. The first large-scale experiment is taking place at Sandy River Waste Recycling Association in Farmington, which serves 21 towns, most of them in Franklin County.

Sandy River is in the middle of a two-year pilot project, funded by the state, that aims to turn food waste into a useful product — compost is an excellent soil supplement, and bagged compost is now sold at many garden supply outlets.

Ron Slater, the manager, has attended the Compost School along with his assistant, and says that compost methods can definitely work at landfills and transfer stations. “You’d rather have them do it in the backyard, but we can do it here, too.” So far, he said, it’s clear that composting on a fairly large scale is feasible at a municipal or regional facility, and that it does remove significant volume from the waste stream.

So far, most of the organic material is coming from the University of Maine at Farmington, Mt. Blue High School, and Franklin Regional Hospital, but Slater said that collection may expand to include restaurants, grocery stores and homeowners.

Some Franklin County municipalities are now offering a compost bin right alongside the big trash compactors used at transfer stations. “You keep a bin of shavings alongside, cover it at night, and there’s no smell,” he said. The compost bins are covered, but allow air circulation to begin the chemical breakdown. That part of the program can readily be expanded, he said, something Sandy River hopes to do to make the program self-sustaining when the grant period is over next year.

Hazwaste at Home

In Lewiston, the municipal landfill hosts the first permanent household hazardous waste collection facility. The Western Maine Environmental Depot opened last summer, and is now operating April to November on two Saturday mornings a month.

Operated by the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments (AVCOG) for 35 participating communities, this facility was also built with state support — money from an environmental bond issue approved in 2003. Ferg Lea, planning director for AVCOG, oversees the facility, and said it’s important to have a regular place homeowners can dispose of hazardous substances. The depot supplements the waste collection days that have been run at many sites around the state, including Lewiston and Auburn. They are designed to help ensure that homeowners don’t leave hazardous substances around the home, or dispose of them improperly, such as pouring them down the drain. While most of the depot’s customers are from the Lewiston-Auburn area, the collection point is open to any Maine resident.

Collection days are still an important part of the strategy, Lea said. “If we had a day in Lewiston or Auburn, we might have 400 people coming in, but 300 of them were usually from the host community.”

The most common hazardous substances the Environmental Depot sees are lead-based paint, solvents such as turpentine and paint thinners, and contaminated gasoline and waste oil.

Household hazardous waste, as the name implies, requires more careful handling than e-waste (which can safely be stored for long periods) and compost (which is harmless). Lea said that the state sees “major issues with handling” of household hazardous waste and has enacted some of the nation’s strictest regulations.

When discussions for the pilot collection point began, a number of different waste facilities were interested. By the time they were done, AVCOG was the only one left.

Part of the DEP requirements for the collection facility is that a certified chemist be on hand at all times. This has led AVCOG to limit hours, but demand is limited as well. Lea points out that other New England states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, allow small businesses to bring hazardous waste to facilities similar to AVCOG’s. Maine does not, however. “If we did that, we could open more hours and dispose of the waste more efficiently, too,” he said. In years past, municipalities collected household hazardous waste and transported it to a central disposal point. But the state doesn’t allow that either, requiring certified handling as soon as it leaves the homeowner’s hands.

While environmental groups often have “big concerns” about hazardous waste handling, Lea says there needs to be a balance that encourages people to get toxic substances out of their cupboards and barns. The depot sees material that’s anywhere from a few months to 60 years old – particularly old paint cans. Some of the other “oldies” are lighter fluid and carbon tetrachloride, once a popular cleaning solvent, as well as expired pesticides and herbicides.

Lea doubts that Maine’s current collection efforts get any more than a small fraction of the hazardous waste out there, and he thinks collection rates would increase markedly if the state relaxed some of its rules.

For those who do make the trip to Lewiston, they can dispose of up to five gallons for a $26 fee, and bring in another five gallons for the same price. There’s a 10-gallon limit for any one customer, but Lea said that’s usually more than adequate. A few towns have arrangements where residents can bring in waste and have the town pay part or all of the cost.

Lewiston was a natural site for the project not only because of its central location to the region’s population, but because its current DEP landfill license requires it to rigorously separate hazardous waste before disposal. Eventually, other sites besides Lewiston would be helpful but Lea says the state may have to become more inclusive in its collection policies before more collection points become feasible.

The Elusive Goal

Recycling no longer seems to have the visibility it achieved several decades ago, but state officials are hoping efforts like the Blue Ribbon Commission can focus public, and legislative, attention once again.

In many communities, town officials are seeking to cut solid waste costs, but collection methods like pay-per-bag are not always popular. Such steps, however, can become more palatable if they are coupled with increased recycling opportunities, so people have fewer bag to throw away in the first place.

Sam Morris said that a comprehensive strategy, with components such as those already in place for e-waste, compost, and hazardous waste, can help achieve the goal of not only reducing the volume of trash, but making the disposal of what remains much more environmentally benign. “Whatever we can get out before waste gets to the facility is a major gain,” he said. The University of Maine is just beginning an on-campus composting effort, and it could be expanded to cover a large region, he pointed out.

George McDonald said that while recycling has showed continued gains, overall trash volume has increased faster, which suggests the need for new strategies. At the moment, municipalities process about three-quarters of a ton of trash per person, per year. It really does add up.

Said Morris, “We’d like to get to the point where disposal is the last option, not the first.”