Gouldsboro Town Manager Sherri Cox immediately cut a town service when, early into the new budget season, she discovered a steep rise in recycling fees that threatened to bust the budget.
“We budgeted $80 per ton for curbside recycling, but I was told that could go up to $200 per ton by the end of this year,” she said.
The $80 per ton amount was budgeted before a shocking May bill for $137 per ton arrived.
“We had to stop recycling immediately,” Cox said when she saw the high bill and was told things would likely get worse.
The Hancock County town plans to stop curbside recycling on Sept. 1. Meanwhile, it’s looking for alternatives to keep recycling, but affordable answers are lacking, Cox said.
Much of the extra cost stems from volatile waste management prices after China — in an effort to clean up its environment and industry — banned imports of 24 waste items from the United States, Europe and other countries starting Jan. 1, 2018. China is the largest importer of solid waste in the world.
But there are other reasons for the escalating costs, including “dirty” recycling that contains items that cannot be recycled or is too expensive to clean and resell for a profit.
Gouldsboro isn’t alone among towns throughout Maine struggling with high recycling costs. Cox said after the news that the town was ending its curbside pickup got out, a handful of other town managers facing a similar struggle called for advice.
Gouldsboro’s solid waste committee recommended to the selectboard during a meeting last week that the town set up bins at the transfer station where residents could self-sort specific items, but it still proved too expensive to find someone to take the recyclables, Cox said.
“It’s something a lot of towns are looking at,” Cox said of waste disposal. “But it’s a worldwide issue.”
Many towns are placing detailed signs and brochures at transfer stations and on town websites telling residents how to prepare recyclables. For example, the instructions for recycling are posted at the Tri-County Solid Waste transfer station that serves Appleton, Liberty, Somerville, Union and Washington.
“Most Maine consumers aren’t affected so far,” said Vic Horton, executive director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, an industry group based in Newport.
“Towns are handling the contamination fees and they haven’t hit home for residents,” he said. “But the towns have to incur costs that aren’t necessarily budgeted.”
Even though there’s plenty of money to be made by various parties in the international waste management business, Horton doesn’t expect China’s market to open wide again. He and other experts said the business is changing and new approaches are needed.
“It might rebound a bit, but I think the change is permanent,” he said. “[China] warned us.”
China started importing large volumes of waste and scrap 30 years ago. It took waste loaded onto otherwise empty ships that had delivered goods to Europe and the United States before returning to China, which imported 47 million tons in 2015.
But China has publicized its policies to clean its environment and drastically reduce dirty waste imports since 2013, starting with the “Green Fence” project and its intensive inspections.
Even local waste management organizations like ecomaine in Portland included extra fees in their contracts for dirty recycling, such as greasy pizza boxes or broken glass shards that can’t be recycled.
In both cases, neither carried out its policies with a heavy hammer, so dirty waste continued to pile up, largely ignored until recently.
However, last September, China began more strictly enforcing its stated 0.5 percent limit for allowable contamination. Until then, it often took recycling with 20 percent to 40 percent contamination, ecomaine spokesman Matt Grondin said.
“There wasn’t much incentive to clean up the trash before then,” he said, because no one was enforcing rules.
That was followed by the import ban on 24 kinds of solid waste, including components of plastic bottles.