When single stream or zero-sort recycling began in Maine, China was buying everything in bulk. That all changed about a year ago when they stopped accepting a number of different items, including any recyclables contaminated with waste.
“China was becoming the dumping ground for materials that weren't worth it over here,” said Craig Stuart-Paul, Fiberight CEO. “And the Chinese government, this last October, said enough. We are determined to get our environment cleaned up.”
With China pulling out the rug on the global recycling commodities market, prices plummeted and recycling companies pushed increased costs onto residents.
“In Orono, we used to dispose of our single sort recycling at no cost other than collection,” said Town
Manager Sophie Wilson. “Now, we're paying $140 a ton.”
“We've made the decision in Orono that continuing to have the community recycle is important,” Wilson added.
Casella Waste Systems -- one of the biggest zero-sort recyclers in the region – has made a video asking residents and communities to modify what they pull from their trash.
“Recycling is a complex global problem,” John Casella, Casella Waste Systems chairman and CEO, said at the beginning of the video. “There are no simple or single solutions. What recycling needs now is for everyone, every stakeholder to be part of the solution.”
“In 2017, the U.S. exported almost 30 percent of it's recyclables to China,” said Bob Cappadonna, Casella Waste Systems, vice president of recycling. “Then recently everything changed. The Chinese government announced it will no longer accept 24 grades of materials, including mixed paper.
“Simply put, it's difficult for our current single stream processing technology to achieve this new standard without everyone's help,” he said.
One of the biggest problems with single sort is that food waste contaminates the clean recyclables.
Operators say that is not going to be a problem at Fiberight's Coastal Resources of Maine facility in Hampden, which is counting on food waste to make one of the three different biofuels at the plant from what people throw away.
“This process can recycle those materials in traditional markets, if they exist, if the markets don't exist, this process is able to convert those materials into fuel,” said Greg Lounder, executive director of the Municipal Review Committee, which represents the 115 towns or communities that will sent their trash and recycling to the Hampden facility.
Currently, the Fiberight plant is set up to bundle for sale number 1 and 2 plastics, metal cans, paper and cardboard.
Numbers 3 through 7 plastics are no longer being accepted by China, and glass is one item that is no longer profitable to recycle.
“Glass is a problematic material, and it has for a number of years,” Lounder said. “Even with traditional, local separation, it's been very difficult through the years to find markets for that material.”
Nearly half of the massive Coastal Resources of Maine Facility is dedicated to removing recyclables and the other half will be used to refine or produce biogas, paper-based cellulose pulp that can be made into biofuel, and fuel briquettes.
Afterward, all of the remaining residues will go back through the recycling machines, “to make a second pass at recycles materials that got missed locally,” Lounder said. “That represents a significant opportunity to really increase the overall recycling rate for our region.”
Another benefit for consumers is the ease in which they can recycle through Coastal Resources of Maine.
“There is no sorting involved ahead of time because they are the ones doing all the sorting,” said Dr. Hemant Pendse, director of the University of Maine's Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, who was tasked in 2015 with conducting an independent technical study of the plant.