Trash Talk and Recycling with Ecomaine

On May 24, 2022, Ecomaine educator Nate Cronauer helped us better understand the ‘waste management hierarchy’ (read on to learn what it is) and how to make our own waste streams a bit more sustainable. If you don’t have time to watch the video, you can read highlights, including many ways to reduce your waste footprint, and access some excellent resources below. You can also access the video at the bottom of this post.

Ecomaine is a nonprofit which provides comprehensive waste services to many Maine communities. Its history reflects the evolution of waste management in recent decades. It started with four southern Maine communities looking for a regional approach as landfill space diminished.  Over the years, its approach and systems have become increasing sophisticated as the costs of waste disposal and our understanding of its environmental impacts have risen.

Today, Ecomaine serves 73 communities, offers single stream recycling, owns a waste-to-energy facility and landfill, and sells materials to multiple outlets for recycling. It has received ISO certification for excellence in environmental management for each of its three facilities. The Town of Brunswick recently signed a contract to use Ecomaine as its waste management provider.

Ecomaine embraces the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle, compost/digest, convert waste to energy, landfill, in that order. It educates its member communities about the waste hierarchy because following it makes waste management more efficient, saves money, and reduces environmental impacts.

Before we get into tips on how to make your waste stream more sustainable, here’s some important info shared by Nate about plastic recycling, food waste, and Maine’s new law intended to reduce the waste stream.

First, a few notes about recycling plastic. The so-called ‘recycle symbol’ does not mean that something can be recycled. It’s a ‘resin identification code’ indicating what the product is made of. It doesn’t mean the product is recyclable. Different communities have different recycling capacities, so you need to find out which resins can be recycled in your community. Ecomaine takes products labeled 1 – 7, because it has markets for all those materials.

Plastic bags (so-called ‘stretch plastic’) are NOT recyclable by most recycling programs and are a huge headache for waste handling equipment. They tangle equipment and must be removed manually, increasing costs and reducing efficiency. So don’t put them in with your regular recycling.

However, in Maine, grocery stores are required to collect and recycle stretch plastic, including plastic bags, because they generate so much of it. Stretch plastic gets made into recycled lumber, park benches, and other products. So take your plastic bags and any other plastic that stretches (e.g. bubble wrap) to your local grocery store.

On to food waste. Here’s a truly disturbing statistic: 30 – 50% of the food we grow is wasted! There are many negative consequences of this fact.

  • Food waste represents a huge waste of nutrients and energy. Think of all the resources used to grow, transport, and store food…and then it gets landfilled. If this food is eaten, or at least put to a productive use, all those resources are not going to waste. The Food Recovery Pyramid prioritizes using food as follows: feeding hungry people, feeding animals, industrial composting, home composting. Landfilling should be a last resort.
  • Food has a high water content. When food goes into a waste to energy facility, it doesn’t burn well and reduces electricity generation.
  • When food is landfilled, it produces methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. It also contributes to leachate which can contaminate groundwater.

So…don’t buy more food than you can eat, pay attention to what’s in your refrigerator, give away what you can’t eat, compost food that spoils (or get chickens and they’ll eat it…well, most of it), and ask restaurants and grocery stores if their food waste gets composted.

Lastly, be on the lookout for news about the implementation of Maine’s new law, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law, designed to incentivize less packaging. When implemented, producers will pay a tax on packaging and the money will go to municipalities to support their waste management costs.

Now for tips on how to make your waste stream more sustainable:

  • REDUCE the waste you generate
    • Use reusable items – reusable water bottles, coffee containers
      • GoGo Refill – South Portland retail store and vendor at BTLT Farmers’ Market at Crystal Spring Farm on Saturday mornings
    • Stop using plastics – keep plastics out of the land and ocean
    • Eliminate single use items such as disposable cutlery and plates
    • Cancel unnecessary (junk) mail
    • Use reusable bags
    • Don’t put food waste in the trash, compost it!
    • Buy products made from post-consumer (recycled) materials
    • Access ‘buy nothing’ groups where people post free items
    • Use your consumer power – look at the ratio of packaging to the item. Don’t buy items with unnecessary packaging, and let sellers know how you feel about packaging.
    • Choose options like Amazon Day which combine your orders and deliver them once/week in a single box.
    • Support community clean-up efforts or organize one yourself!
  • REUSE items whenever possible
    • Upcycle! Get creative! Use old boots as planters, make old keys into hooks…
    • Bring your own container to a refill store (GoGo Refill)
    • When assessing whether a plastic item can be recycled, look for:
      • Is it RIGID?
      • Is it a CONTAINER?
      • No lithium batteries! They start fires!
      • No cords or plastic bags!
      • No ‘wishcycling’ – you may want it to be recyclable, but if it’s not, it just causes problems
        • Check out the Recyclopedia on ecomaine website for info on what they can recycle
    • How to recycle
      • Metal cans – rinse, put lid in bottom, crimp (to keep lid in)
      • Plastic trays – rinse
      • Plastic and glass bottles – rinse and replace cap. No liquids!
    • Home composting
      • Mix food with leaves and aerate
      • Different methods: spinner; static pile; vermicomposting with worms
    • Don’t include ‘biodegradable’ plastics – they only break down under very specific conditions.
  • How2recycle – website of organization that advocates for better labeling that will make recycling easier and more effective. Check out their labels and their blog to learn more about what they’re doing.
  • Terracycle – collects products that are difficult to recycle from consumers and makes them into things. Some product returns are subsidized by specific brands, others you have to pay for shipping and recycling costs.
  • Maine DEP has good info on recycling
  • Info on Maine’s Extended Producer Responsibility law
  • Saltwater Classroom‘s Rubbish program sponsors clean ups in and around Portland. Join one!
  • GoGo Refill – So Portland store that sells sustainable products and will refill your containers with household products. Has a both at BTLT’s Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings.
  • Recyclopedia – ecomaine’s information page for the communities it serves about what is recyclable
  • FTC information on how to stop junk mail
  • Recyclopedia – Ecomaine’s info on what they can recycle