Many Maine communities have pared back or dropped recycling programs in an effort to guard workers from potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Some big supermarkets have also curtailed in-store redemption efforts. To accommodate these moves, Gov. Janet Mills has ordered that the state ease enforcement of some recycling rules.
Last month the New England Journal of Medicine published research demonstrating that the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could persist on some metal and plastic surfaces for as long as three days, and a day or so on cardboard. That got noticed in the solid waste and recycling communities.
"People didn't want to put their workers at risk, to handle the public's goods."
Victor Horton is the executive director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, which acts as an advisor and broker for Maine municipalities looking to dispose of waste and recyclables.
"Because you can't tell who's coming in that might have the virus or might be in the early stages or late or not. So they said 'look we can't take the risk of having all our people getting sick because, you know, sometimes when you're sick, you die.' "
Municipalities large and small moved to limit worker exposure by suspending recycling programs and encouraging residents to throw everything together into one bag.
Augusta, for instance, suspended its recycling programs, which serve several surrounding communities as well. A collaborative of towns in the Unity area put its on indefinite hiatus. And many small towns took action on their own.
"We have stopped receiving them, and we are putting them in with our household garbage," says Thomas Brophy, who manages Stonington's transfer station.
"We've closed down temporarily 'til everything gets straightened out here. We've also closed down our 'take-it-or-leave it.' I tell people if you want to keep saving it at home, that'd be fine, and when we open it back up we'll gladly take it. But as of right now, if you need to get rid of it it's got to go in the hopper."
Mills has issued an executive order designed to encourage public and worker safety in waste-handling programs. Among other things, it allows recyclables to be burned at waste-to-energy plants — and still count those recyclables towards the state's goal of 50-percent recycling.
Dave Burns, who directs the state's waste management programs, says the goal is not so much to encourage incineration, but to discourage towns with suspended recycling programs from sending the added material to landfills.
"Landfilling is the lowest alternative on the state solid-waste management hierarchy," Burns says.
Burns was not able to provide data documenting how much recyclable material is being diverted to incinerators or landfills right now.
And although you can't see inside most garbage bags, some in the industry do not believe much more recyclable material is being burned than before.
"We're seeing an increase in recycling, especially on the residential front," says Matt Grondin, a spokesperson for ecomaine, a Portland recycling center and trash-to-energy incinerator.
Grondin says that most of ecomaine's member towns are continuing curbside pickup of unsorted, "single-stream" recyclables, which require lower levels of handling and therefore pose less of a health risk. And while the stalled business sector is producing less waste and fewer recyclables than usual, Grondin says households are making up the difference.
"As people are at home as opposed to their workplace, they're spending more of their time making waste at home,” he says. “So we do see the increase on the residential side, both in trash and recycling."
At the same time, the pandemic is creating some new profit opportunities in the recyclable markets.
Recycled fiber, which in February was worth less than $50 a ton, has risen as high as $84 a ton. That's being driven by surging demand for retail shipping materials, for paper towels and, of course, for toilet paper.
Materials broker Victor Horton says some towns are leaving money on the table, albeit for understandable reasons.
"It's just unfortunate that a lot of towns aren't going to be able to capitalize on it because they decided for safety reasons it's better to just throw the stuff in the garbage," says Horton.
His hometown has suspended recycling, so for the moment he's storing his own cardboard and cans in the garage. He's concerned, though, that some people's recycling habits may wither.
"Once we train people to throw this away, how the heck are we going to train them to start being good again, when it's safe to come out of our little holes and do it the way we used to do it? I am hoping we can. It might take some more education."
It's worrying some environmentalists as well.
"You know from an advocacy point we immediately had to pivot from offense to defense."
Sarah Nichols is the "Sustainable Maine" director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. She says counting the incineration of materials towards recycling sends a bad message.
"People are more confused about what they can recycle even more than they already were. And one of my biggest concerns is actually with the bottle bill. The state has decided not to enforce our bottle bill collection, and it's resulting in less material going through that system."
State officials point out that many redemption centers remain open and are doing strong business, as is the Clynk supermarket drop-off program. But Nichols says that nationally the supply of clean glass, tin and PET plastic is dropping. That can encourage container manufacturers to bypass recycled materials, she says, and instead forge new products using fossil fuels, which are now very inexpensive courtesy of the pandemic.
Originally published 4:31 p.m. April 23, 2020