Portland pushes back on recycling violations

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PORTLAND — After finally putting a lid on residents’ recyclables, the city is now making sure the right stuff is inside the bins.

“This happens a lot on this street,” Tyler Emery of the Department of Public Works said June 1 as he returned a full recycling bin to the curb on Woodford Street.

After finding sheets of Styrofoam and plastic bags inside, Emery left an orange citation sticker on the outside, instructing the owner to correct a violation that carries a potential $100 fine.

Those warnings are becoming more frequent, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said May 31, with more than 200 citations issued the week before for “contaminated” loads of recyclable materials found inside the 64- and 96-gallon bins.

Contaminated loads are a bit more benign than they sound, but household garbage and other unrecyclable refuse continues to make its way into bins instead of getting set out for the solid waste collections that occur the same day.

As more recycling bins become trash cans, Grondin said it appears revenue from the sale of trash bags required for city collection of solid waste is declining. The bags are sold in local stores and cost $1.35 each for a 15-gallon bag, and $2.70 for a 30-gallon bag.

Ultimately, solid waste and recyclables both go to ecomaine’s processing facilities at 64 Blueberry Road. The solid waste is burned and converted to electricity. Recyclable materials are separated and sold, locally and globally.

On May 31, ecomaine spokesman Matt Grondin, who is married to Jessica, said contaminated loads from throughout the region are becoming an expensive burden for the regional waste-to-energy company.

“We are having a tougher time moving recyclables, especially paper,” he said. “It is pretty unprecedented.”

This year, a major market has contracted because the Chinese have adopted a zero-tolerance policy on accepting contaminated recyclables.

Matt Grondin said a load with as much as 40 percent contamination might have been sold to China in the past. But that is no longer the case.

“We are increasing staff time to sort more paper, and looking at new technologies to keep plastic bags and tanglers out of the storing system,” he said.

Recyclables are brought to ecomaine in single-sort bins, either collected by municipalities, or in the longer “silver bullet” containers, separately from solid waste. Ecomaine serves more than 70 communities, extending from near Bangor to Greenfield, New Hampshire, and west to Fryeburg.

Once delivered, the recyclables are sorted by hand and machine, including magnets that remove metals and sorters for bottles, Matt Grondin said.

Despite the recycling triangles imprinted on some items such as plastic bags and foam, ecomaine does not accept them as recyclables. Plastic bags jam up the sorting wheels, and the work stoppage for sorting can be as long as 90 minutes, he said.

On the city side, the new lidded bins, which were distributed last August, were designed to keep recyclables from blowing away.

The new carts cost about $1 million, with $175,000 coming from a grant from the nonprofit Recycling Partnership. Crews are able to dump two at a time, and the public was allowed to keep the 16- to 18-gallon open bins as a way to collect recyclables inside their homes before dumping them into the bigger bins.

Jessica Grondin said fines can be assessed, but the city prefers a gentler approach.

“Our first line of defense is to always educate residents,” she said. “We would only start the monetary fine process if we came across a repeat offender.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

This load of recyclables was rejected in Portland on June 1 because of the foam and plastic bags inside. The week before, city crews wrote more than 200 citations for improper use of the recycling bins.

Tyler Emery writes a citation on a rejected load of recyclables on Woodford Street in Portland on June 1. The city can fine people $100 for improperly dumping materials in recyclable bins, but more typically warn violators.

Don Penney and Tyler Emery collected recyclable materials June 1 on Woodford Street in Portland. The city is cracking down on improper use of the bins as ecomaine finds it harder to sell the recyclables it collects.

Plastic bags can clog the works for sorting recyclables at ecomaine, spokesman Matt Grondin said May 31, so they should not be tossed into recycling bins.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.