We live in a time where the majority of the population understands that recycling is an important part of waste management in a modern society. Caring for our environment is a big part of caring for our community. Last year in Cornish, Maine, the town has asked for and received a second recycling bin to keep up town's recycling efforts.
Today, it is much easier to do our part. Until 2006, those who wanted to recycle had to sort out different recycling materials and bring them to facilities that would accept them. In 2007, EcoMaine (and the communities that own it) brought single-sort recycling to the state. Now, cardboard, mixed paper, aluminum, #1-#7 plastics, tin & steel cans, and glass can go in the same recycling bin that is brought to the EcoMaine facility to be sorted. This has made recycling more convenient and approachable to many communities. *
Mellen & Sons Disposal Services is a privately owned company in Parsonsfield, Maine and is responsible for bringing our trash and recycling to EcoMaine. From there everything is sorted and sent to its next destination, depending on the material. Recyclable materials are sold to markets that will re-purpose them. Trash is burned at temperatures between 1800 - 2000 degrees Fahrenheit to minimize pollution and produces about 100,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year in the process. Only 10% of original material is sent to a landfill in the form of ash.
"EcoMaine does in fact allow all plastic, paper and glass to be recycled together. This is what is referred to industry wide as single stream.“ - Mike Mellen
“Single stream allows for much more streamlined recycling, as it is a time saver not having to separate items. When these items are transported to the facility they are dumped onto a floor at their recycling plant. When each truck enters, an EcoMaine employee is waiting there to inspect your load. He’ll count as many contaminants as possible and give you a percentage when he signs the drivers weight slip. A front end loader then pushes the recycling into the feeder where it is put on to a conveyor belt. It is then sent through stations where machines sort through it and separate all materials into their own designated area. Bigger materials like cardboard continue along while smaller items like glass and paper fall through the separators and are gathered that way. It’s quite an operation!" says Mike Mellen, describing the behind-the-scenes work that we don't get to see.
As consumers, there are still things we need to know to make sure we are helping the process. The EcoMaine flyer is the first piece of information that will show what is considered recyclable material. You can find that information at the town hall or adhered to the recycling bins at the transfer station. Furthermore, on their website, ecomaine.org features an enormous amount of information to help us figure things out. From quick reference flyers, to videos and classroom kits - the information is available to those that want to learn. They also have resources for educators that want to host information sessions in schools.
In February, Bonney Memorial Library in Cornish hosted a class offered through Sacopee Valley Adult & Community Education and brought educators from EcoMaine to talk about recycling and what happens to it after it's picked up. David and Ben Newman of The Local Gear attended.
It's fascinating and David was kind enough to share his experience: "I learned quite a bit about the particulars of what can and cannot be recycled, but more importantly why, and how to better handle the things we are recycling now, such as leaving the lids on the plastic containers because otherwise, they become too light, float over the separators and contaminate the paper bales. Also, I now better understand the trash to energy aspect of the process including how it gets incinerated and dealt with in a clean manner. I was particularly curious about this."
Why is it important that different material bales aren't contaminated? Well, it certainly becomes harder to sell contaminated bales to the market and it takes tax dollars to clean up the contaminants. Thinking back to my own recycling practices, I realized that I had some questions.
Thankfully, Mike Mellen was able to clarify some of my own questions about what is considered a contaminated recycling:
- As long as pizza boxes aren't too saturated with grease, they can be recycled.
- Milk jugs and food containers, as long as they are empty and have minimal residue, do not need to be washed out. Aluminum foil and plates are treated the same way.
- Paper boxes with plastic film windows are acceptable.
Some things are simpler than I thought! The biggest contaminate, however, is the number of plastic bags that end up in the recycling bins:
"The biggest practice we’d like to encourage people to do curbside, or at any silver bullet, is not to put out plastic bags! They are the biggest contaminant today in any facility across the country. At Ecomaine, plastic bags wrap themselves around the teeth and the turning shafts that separate materials and can shut down the line once too many become entangled. They cause thousands of hours of shutdowns per year as each time employees must go in and cut them all out by hand before starting the conveyor belts back up. So plastic bags are a big no no. Plastic bags can easily be recycled at ANY store nationwide that uses plastic bags for bagging customers goods. This includes Call’s Shop and Save, Dollar General, or Walmart." says Mike Mellen.
Starting March 15th, contaminated recycling bins won't be picked up from the town of Parsonsfield (curbside pick-up). Instead the bins will be left behind with a sheet explaining to the customer what the contaminant is so it can be avoided in the future. Mostly, it is the plastic bags that have caused this to come to be, and the good news is that being vigilant about not putting plastic bags in the recycling is an easy solution.
To take a step even further, CLYNK is another local service that has a huge impact on local communities. CLYNK is a bottle redemption service that tracks your returns on a card that you can redeem for cash at a local Hannaford. Not only does it reward you for recycling cans, bottles, and even nips bottles, it also give you an option to put the redemption money towards a local charity or organizations, including youth programs of your choice. You can quickly sign up at a local Hannaford and start collecting!
With these many local companies putting so much effort into caring for our communities, it seems much easier to do our part than in the past. Learning and using resources available to us has certainly awakened a new appreciation for an industry of unsung heroes.
By Dasha Smirnova