In this April 17, 2013, file photo, a worker pulls plastic bags from the recycling steam at ecomaine in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Many Mainers would like to think that the paper, plastic and other materials they consume each week will find a new life once they leave it at the curb or transfer station — maybe reborn as plastic rings that hold together their next six pack or as a cardboard box that carries a delivery from Amazon.

The state even has a decades-old law that’s meant to encourage more recycling and composting of household trash, with the goal of diverting at least half of that waste away from the more environmentally damaging options of the landfill or incinerator.

But in reality, Maine has never hit that statutory goal since it was enacted in 1989 — and, if anything, it has been losing ground in recent years.

The volume of rubbish annually going to Maine landfills and waste-to-energy plants has mostly been growing for at least six years, and those facilities are also taking in a bigger slice of the waste generated by towns and cities, according to newly available data in a January report from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

One of the biggest drivers of those trends has been the rising price for Maine communities to recycle their waste: those costs spiked in 2018 amid new import restrictions from China and other countries, forcing a number of towns and cities to reevaluate whether they could offer recycling at all.

While those market challenges have been well-documented, the 23-page state report has shown in new detail just how seriously they have set back efforts to dispose of waste in the cleanest manner possible and to extend the life of its existing landfills, which are projected to last for at least 10 more years at current disposal rates.

Under Maine’s environmental laws, landfills are considered the most wasteful means of disposing trash, while incinerators that burn trash to create electricity are just one step above them. At the top of that hierarchy is reducing waste completely, while reusing, recycling and composting are considered the next best options in descending order.

“Landfills are forever. They leach into the soil. They break down. They cost a lot of money to maintain,” said Rep. Ralph Tucker of Brunswick, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “It’s very difficult to set them up because nobody wants to live near the landfill, and so, obviously, if we wanted to go into the landfill business, we could pave the Maine woods with rubbish from New York City, but nobody wants to do that.”

In addition, a full landfill signals that plenty of other natural resources have been depleted elsewhere in the world, while none of their previous value has been recovered, according to Tucker.

Released in January, the new Department of Environmental Protection report included rough totals for how much waste went to landfills, incinerators and recyclers in 2018 and 2019, as reported by those different entities.

The state reported recycling and composting between 35.1 percent and 37.8 percent of its municipal waste during those years, according to the biennial report. However, the publication also noted that it was using a new definition of recycling that included commercial and residential waste, unlike prior reports that just included the latter. Using the old definition of recycling that was in place until 2017, the state recycled just 30 percent of the 1.36 million tons of residential waste consumed during 2019, according to the report.

That was down from a recent high of 41.4 percent in 2013, when Mainers generated 1.16 million tons of trash. (The state produced an additional 469,719 tons of construction and demolition debris in 2019 that did not count toward the statutory recycling target for municipal waste.)

Maine’s overall waste generation increased by about 2.5 percent between 2017 and 2019, outpacing the 0.4 percent growth in the state’s population during those years, according to the report. The average Mainer disposed of more than 0.6 tons of waste in 2019, meaning the state failed to meet another statutory target of 0.55 tons of disposed waste per capita.

The state still hasn’t collected data for the most recent full year, 2020, to assess whether it finally hit the 50 percent recycling standard ahead of the most recent deadline lawmakers had set for doing so, which happened to be last month.

But there are no penalties for missing those marks, and there is little to suggest the state reached that goal in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic drove up consumer demand for hygienic products, disposable food containers and other goods delivered in bulky shipping materials that eventually had to end up in the waste stream.

The temporary closure of a new Hampden waste plant from last May through the end of the year also meant that 115 communities across central, eastern and northern Maine — including the state’s third largest city, Bangor — were unexpectedly forced to landfill and burn much more waste during those months.

In their report, state environmental officials attributed much of the recent increase in landfilling and incineration to the growing cost that towns and cities must pay to recycle, and they warned that Maine is unlikely to meet its waste disposal goals “without solid investments.”

For most communities, the new restrictions on mixed plastics and paper from China in 2017 helped multiply the average recycling fee eightfold over the next two years, the Department of Environmental Protection found. The average fee for a single-stream recycling program during those years was around $128 per town, which was 67 percent higher than the average fee for landfilling or incinerating.

As a result, some Maine communities simply decided to end their recycling programs entirely, while others decided it was worth the extra cost to keep them going.

Now, some recycling markets may actually be starting to rebound, according to Kevin Roche, CEO of ecomaine, a Portland-based nonprofit group that provides a mix of recycling, waste-to-energy and landfilling services to more than 70 towns and cities. Between July and January, it saw growth ranging from 39 percent to 325 percent in the prices it received for different metals, plastics, mixed papers and cardboard, according to the organization’s data.

“Something that I’ve communicated regularly, almost daily to our member communities is, ‘Don’t give up on recycling,’” Roche said. “Yes, it’s costing you more today, but over time, I compare it to the stock market. We don’t get into the stock market to get a huge gain over the next month, or over the next year. Most people are in it for the long term, and it’s the same thing with recycling. If you look at it over the last 10, 20, 30 years, it has outperformed any other solid waste strategy.”

But the market will continue to present new challenges. Other countries have restricted what recycled goods they’ll import, while the costs of recycling plastics could go up as the fossil fuel industry shifts from producing energy to making more virgin plastics, according to the Department of Environmental Protection report.

The Department of Environmental Protection did not prescribe any specific investments to help the state get back on track with its recycling goals, other than making general improvements in its recycling infrastructure.

But organizations, advocacy groups and lawmakers are eyeing several different approaches meant to help drive up recycling rates and remove the incentives to landfill.

One new bill sponsored by Tucker would remove a number of exemptions in a state law that charges municipalities a per-ton fee for every ton of landfilled waste while also lowering that fee from $2 to $1, to ensure that the rule is more widely and evenly applied. The proceeds from that program help the Department of Environmental Protection to promote recycling around the state.

Another bill backed by the Natural Resources Council of Maine would be far more ambitious, creating a first-in-the-nation program that would help shift the costs of disposing packaging materials from Maine residents to the companies that make the packaging.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee considered a similar bill last year, but it did not make it to the full Legislature before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the session.

At the time, a number of different trade and business groups opposed the bill because of the extra costs it would place on their members. However, at least one packaging trade group, AMERIPEN, may be coming around to such a policy, according to the publication Waste 360.

Besides shifting the cost of waste disposal away from Maine towns and cities that are struggling to afford recycling, such an approach would also pressure businesses to reduce the overall amount of packaging that they use and that eventually ends up in the waste stream, according to Sarah Nichols, Natural Resources Council of Maine’s Sustainable Maine director.

“We need to focus on more waste reduction-reuse opportunities, so that we don’t have so much trash to deal with,” Nichols said. “Recycling is great: we need it to avoid landfilling and avoid incineration and to conserve resources, but it’s still like the third best thing on the hierarchy.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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