Opinion: Taking the long view of municipal recycling

Opinion: Taking the long view of municipal recycling

Ecomaine CEO Kevin Roche discusses why the recent recycling market downturn shouldn't overshadow the benefits municipal programs can offer.

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August 9, 2019

Increasingly, I read headlines announcing “the death of recycling,” and that one more town or city has decided to abandon its recycling program in the face of a depressed market for our paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass. Over the last 18 months, we have all seen the impact of China’s National Sword policy, of too much contamination, and of too little outreach and education.

There is no question about it—times are tough for recycling.

In this industry, as with any, we should continually be on the lookout for ways to improve, streamline and incorporate best practices. But ceasing municipal recycling programs is not among those best practices and is a very short-term approach to solving a long-term problem. In short, abandoning municipal recycling is a colossal mistake.

I work with our communities in Maine to urge patience with these programs. We have been through down market cycles previously, and while this time around is longer and deeper than before, there are reasons for hope and strategies we can employ to make improvements and weather the storm—because we will. And when demand rebounds, it will benefit the programs and the participants who have stayed the course.

First, while we cannot control Chinese national policy, we can look to drive down contamination rates domestically, resulting in cleaner product. This is possible through education of residents. I have seen this work at the curb, at Maine’s transfer stations and in our own plant. By devoting resources and full-time staff to education, we know that we can help our neighbors know “which bin to put it in,” to borrow the title of our recent community education campaign. We did not get into this situation overnight; we won’t get out of it overnight, either.

Next, we can and should support the markets that use post-consumer content, creating a market for the material we seek to recycle. This is true for everything from buying post-consumer recycled paper for our printers all the way up to supporting domestic investments in new mills for these resources.

Finally, we should seek out partnerships and relationships in state and local government to foster leadership on these issues to encourage legislation that moves waste up the rungs of the solid waste hierarchy, out of landfills, and into systems and markets that can recover the value inherent in these resources.

As we follow the guidance laid out by the EPA in its solid waste hierarchy, it’s not just the environment that benefits when we recycle, although that is significant. Between the years 2005-2019, ecomaine’s member communities have recycled more than 500,000 tons. If that material would have been thrown into a landfill or brought to ecomaine’s waste-to-energy plant, the towns in question would have paid $36 million to manage these recyclables.

Times may be tough now, but over the long term, municipal recycling is still well worth sticking out a relatively short downturn. We cannot think month-to-month, or even year over year. We must consider this immense challenge in terms of many years, and even decades. We should stay the course, make necessary investments in technology, labor and education. We will be better and stronger as a result of adapting—but not abandoning—our recycling programs.

Kevin Roche is the CEO of ecomaine, the Portland, Maine-based nonprofit, recycling and waste-to-energy operation that serves a third of the state’s population in more than 70 member communities.