BREWER, Maine — A glance into a typical household trash can nowadays will reveal that most of the items inside now can be recycled into other products.
Under single-stream recycling, that pizza box, plastic rotisserie chicken container, cereal and frozen food boxes, and others can join the newspapers, milk jugs and steel cans that Mainers have recycled for decades.
One area refuse company, Pine Tree Waste of Hermon, began offering single-stream or zero-sort recycling in January, and Brewer is one of the first communities in the region to jump on board. Others, including Bangor, are considering the idea.
“Our goal it to decrease what we haul to PERC and increase recycling rates,” Ken Locke, Brewer’s environmental services director, said Wednesday. “Starting July 1 we’re going to start curbside zero-sort recycling, and we’re going to phase in the pay-as-you-throw [trash program] starting Jan. 1.”
Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington is a trash-to-energy incinerator that serves hundreds of area communities.
When people have to pay to dispose of their trash and recycling is made easier, data show that they tend to recycle more, said Karen Fussell, Brewer’s finance director, who has become well-versed in single-stream recycling over the past couple years.
“It’s the environmentally responsible thing to do,” she said. “It has a lot of benefits both economic and environmental. From our perspective, single-stream recycling is a no-brainer.”
The best part: It’s easy.
Anything recyclable is thrown into one container, and the list of what can be recycled through single-stream far exceeds what traditionally was accepted.
“It’s a huge amount of things that can be recycled,” Fussell said.
In Brewer, the plan is for recycled materials to be picked up curbside once a month for six months, then it will be done twice monthly. The contract for the service with Pine Tree, which falls under the corporate umbrella of Casella Waste Systems, is on Tuesday’s City Council agenda.
Pine Tree Waste will use regular trash trucks to collect the recyclables and will deliver them to their material recovery facility in Hampden, at the Pine Tree Landfill. From there the materials will be shipped to Casella Solid Waste in Auburn, Mass., to be baled and sold on the commodities market.
The company’s website shows a video that demonstrates how the items are separated. Items are placed on a conveyer that allows glass to fall through grates, magnets take out cans, and aluminum cans are repelled by a reverse magnetic field called an eddy current. An optical eye separates plastics from paper products by color.
“The truth is the Earth needs us to recycle more,” the video states. “Most of the items we use in our daily lives can be recycled or are made from recycled materials. Recycling is the right thing to do.”
Jim Dunning, sales manager for Pine Tree Waste Services, said zero-sort recycling “makes it so easy to recycle.”
“If it’s plastic and it has a little recycle emblem on it, throw it in the bin,” he said. “It takes all the guesswork out of it. For paper, the rule of thumb is if you can rip it, recycle it.”
Pizza boxes, telephone books, hardcover books, junk mail, all colors of glass, even envelopes with windows and tin foil are recyclable under zero-sort. Unlike traditional recycling, customers don’t have to take off labels but they should rinse out containers.
“It’s different from everything we’ve done in the past,” Dunning said.
Styrofoam cups, foam packing materials, plastic bags, cling wrap, light bulbs, window glass, dishes, along with food and hazardous waste, are not recyclable, but basically everything else is, Dunning said.
Pine Tree began to offer the service to commercial customers in the Bangor area in November, and Abbot, which signed up in March, was the first community on board. If Brewer councilors approve the contract Tuesday, they will be the second.
Bangor, Holden, Orrington, Northport, Islesboro and others also are looking into whether single-stream recycling would work in their communities. A zero-sort compactor was installed near Hilltop Commons at the University of Maine in March, and is being operated as a pilot program, Dunning said.
“We’re hoping it grows legs and expands” when students return in the fall, he said.
Bangor officials have talked about single-stream recycling and adding a pay-as-you-throw trash program, but have decided this week to stick with their traditional rubbish pickups, said Dana Wardwell, the city’s director of public works.
“The council is still debating about what we’re going to do with recycling,” he said. “There are three choices” — eliminate curbside pickup all together; continue it and have public works people sort the recyclables; and single-stream. “That will only happen if the council adopts a pay-per-bag option.”
Bangor began a volunteer recycling program in the 1980s, and its processing center handles the recyclables from 33 area communities. Those items are bundled and sold for a profit, which is split among the contributing towns.
“Single-stream collection on its own is more expensive … because you have that revenue,” Wardwell said. “Losing that revenue is just hard.”
Bangor spends about $650,000 annually to send trash to PERC, and operates its recycling program in the red.
Now that the service option exists, it makes sense to research it, Holden Town Manager John Butts said Wednesday.
“We’re looking at it and we’re leaning in that direction,” he said.
Holden already has the pay-as-you-throw garbage system and provides monthly recycling pickups curbside and a drop-off center.
“We hope to encourage more recycling,” Butts said. “Currently we take No. 2 plastics and newspapers. This will open it up to just about all plastic and paper products. We’re estimating … an approximately 30 percent reduction in the waste stream” under single-stream.
Orrington leaders also are considering single-stream recycling, even though the town doesn’t have to pay tipping fees to PERC, which is located in that community, said Town Manager Paul White.
“It [would] be much easier for people because they don’t have to sort,” he said.
Abbot, a town of about 630 residents that has no curbside pickup, started zero-sort recycling in March and has a big receptacle set up for residents to fill, Selectwoman Janet Ronco said Thursday.
“People like it because it’s very easy,” she said.
Town officials “wanted to do more recycling but there is not a lot of options,” Ronco said. “The community decided recycling was worth” the investment.
“We are successfully providing this service in cities from Boston to Abbot, Maine,” Dunning said. “Chances are most communities will fall somewhere in that spectrum.”
The more people recycle, the fewer bags of trash will be sent to PERC, and municipal costs for disposal will decrease.
In Brewer “we’re anticipating diverting, through recycling, an additional 500 tons with the introduction of single-stream recycling,” Fussell said. Once the pay-as-you-throw program is in place, the city anticipates “that will increase it even more … to 1,200 tons,” she said.
By removing 1,200 tons of refuse from the pile going to PERC, it would save the city around $54,000, Fussell said.
Reducing garbage is an extremely important factor in the equation because favorable contracts between Brewer and PERC expire in 2018, said James Smith, Brewer’s assistant city manager. Brewer’s average tipping fee is around $74.45 a ton, but is offset by a $29.45-a-ton performance credit, he said.
“That’s [the performance rebate] basically what is going away” in 2018 when contracts will need to be renegotiated, Smith said.
Gary Stacey, PERC controller, said that around 75 regional communities also would need to renegotiate contracts in eight years.
Brewer City Manager Steve Bost said single-stream recycling is commonplace in southern Maine and makes sense since it increases recycling and decreases the amount of waste that is burned or put in landfills.
“The timing was right,” Bost said. “When we provide educational materials to the public I think that most people will be very supportive.”
Brewer staff began investigating the process in 2008, he said.
“We’re enhancing services and keeping costs basically the same,” Fussell said. “To me, it makes a lot of sense.”
Those interested in finding out more about zero-sort recycling can go to Casella’s website, casella.com.