Cumberland residents told changing market means new rules for recyclables

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CUMBERLAND — In the latest stop on his tour of community meetings, the CEO of ecomaine asked residents to be sure what they put at the curb for recycling is indeed recyclable material.

A crash in the market for recyclables and tighter limits on trash in the recyclables stream is placing greater pressure on waste managers like ecomaine, Kevin Roche told the Cumberland Town Council Monday.

Cumberland is one of 20 communities that own ecomaine, a nonprofit organization based in Portland. The company has many other associate and contract member communities, and serves about a third of Maine’s population, according to ecomaine.org.

With landfills consuming more and more space – Roche showed pictures of a 1974 newspaper and 1984 Prince “Purple Rain” tape that remained intact after being buried for decades – landfills are rock bottom on ecomaine’s waste hierarchy. Reducing waste is first, followed by reusing, recycling, composting, and waste-to-energy efforts.

There have been ups and downs in the recyclables market over the last 10 years – as high as $107 per ton in 2008 and as low as $60 in 2016. The market grew to $93 last year, and then plummeted to $15 this year, Roche reported.

“That’s the blended value of all the recyclables that we recover from our facility,” he said.

A recent Chinese ban on scrap imports has “really left the market out of balance,” Roche said, explaining that the country had over the past decade been importing more than half the world’s paper and plastic scrap material.

China was willing to pay more for materials than the domestic markets, and it was highly tolerant of contamination, Roche said. While the industry standard for tolerated contamination is 5 percent, China accepted as much as 30 percent.

“It really was a market that the entire industry across the world went after, because they would pay for all of that contamination,” Roche said.

Waste managers have exported materials to other countries, but none of them can take the loads that were sent to China, “so that’s created a huge glut, which has reduced the price for recovered paper and plastic materials dramatically,” Roche explained.

Shrinkage in the print newspaper market in the wake of digital media has been another factor in the market shift. About a decade or two ago, newsprint comprised most of what ecomaine brought in and shipped to Maine paper mills, Roche said.

Contamination, meanwhile, is the only factor over which ecomaine has control, he said. “Over the last decade we’ve seen more and more trash being mixed in with the recyclable material,” Roche noted. “And that’s become a problem.”

The company’s “Recyclopedia,” found on its website, offers both a search engine and A-Z list to show residents what can be recycled, and what is considered trash. Plastic bags, plastic straws, Christmas lights – even an American flag – were among items Roche showed that are not suitable for recycling.

More recycling information is available at Town Hall, 290 Tuttle Road, or by calling Eliza Porter, the town’s communications director, at 829-5559.

Contamination is consistent through all of ecomaine’s member communities, Roche said. Cumberland had a contamination rate of 21 percent between May 14-20, which made its way down to 11 percent in mid-June and was 15 percent at the beginning of this month.

But those countries to which materials are shipped want no more than 5 percent contamination, Roche said. Some markets are capping levels at 2-3 percent.

“We can clean it up, but our facility is designed to sort and separate mixed recyclables; separate the cans and the plastic from the paper,” Roche noted. “That’s the primary design of our facility; not to remove non-recyclable materials.”

The facility uses mechanical and optical separation, as well as manual labor, to sort out the contaminants.

“We’ve had to double the number of sorters in order to meet the specifications that are required in the markets of today,” Roche said.

His company has so far internalized that extra cost through reserves, but will revisit the matter in September.

“If we don’t see any relief (by then), I believe that there will be higher costs associated with recycling going forward,” Roche said. “Because somebody has to pay for that, and ultimately we are the member communities.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Kevin Roche, CEO of ecomaine, on Monday talks to Cumberland councilors about the challenges his company now faces in the wake of a crash in the market for recyclables.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.