The problem with recycling is that not everyone does it. Even in a state like Maine, where recycling rates are high, only 36 percent of recyclable waste was recycled in 2005. Here in Portland, although the amount of trash continues to rise, recycling rates have actually declined slightly over the last few years.
Not only that, but people who already recycle are more likely to do so regardless of convenience — whether or not they have to separate their cans from their newspapers, whether or not they have curbside pickup. It’s the people who don’t recycle at all who need to be coaxed into it.
“We’re trying to get the non-participants to join the program,” says Kevin Roche, general manager of ecomaine, the non-profit that processes Southern Maine’s trash and recyclables. “We do that by making it easier.”
And starting at the beginning of this month, ecomaine took steps to get more people on board, launching the area’s first-ever “single-stream” recycling system. Not only do customers no longer have to separate their papers from their plastics, but city workers no longer have to idle in their trucks (adding to air pollution) while they manually sort through curbside bins.
The city of Portland is helping, by expanding curbside recycling and trash pickup to buildings with as many as 19 apartments (up from a limit of nine in the past), because city workers can just grab the piles and go, leaving the sorting to the machines (and a few jail inmates).
To understand just how easy it is, consider this blow-by-blow of what happens to your beer bottles and cereal boxes after they’re tossed in the blue bins:
Recycled materials (about 100 tons a day) are dumped, unsorted, onto the floor of the building, and fed onto a conveyer belt. The belt runs through a separating mechanism that weeks out large pieces of cardboard, before delivering the rest to the next room, where inmates from the Cumberland County Jail listen to Eminem and keep their eyes peeled for anything that shouldn’t have gotten through — phone books (too thick), real (unrecyclable) trash, or plastic bags. These are tossed aside, while two more separating screens divide mixed paper and newspaper from cans, bottles, and plastic containers.
After another round of inmates make sure everything’s sorted where it should go, the materials meet their future. The paper gets crushed into bundles and shipped to Maine-based plants that make phone directories and fast-food drink trays. Meanwhile, along different routes, metal cans and bottles are bundled for everything from fleece to steel, while glass is crushed into a sandy alternative to gravel.
Plastics get sorted by their thickness — from #1 through #7 — and are similarly smushed into manageable bales, like hay, that are used to make new bottles, plastic lumber, or other post-consumer products.
Ecomaine isn’t the only one trying to make recycling easier. The fledgling Clynk company, which had its grand opening in Scarborough last November, now has about 10,000 customers who cash in on the system’s convenience, plus two newer locations in Windham and Sanford. By allowing customers to drop off bags of recyclables and collect their deposits on individual cards (which can be traded in for cash or to buy items at Hannaford), Clynk also eliminates sorting, as well as the often-gross practice of bringing cans and bottles to redemption centers.