How Maine is transforming who pays for recycling

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Hari Sreenivasan:

For decades, Americans have been encouraged to recycle. The ubiquitous triangle of arrows can be found on almost everything. For more than a generation, many of us have separated our trash from what goes in those blue recycling bins.

But in recent years, there has been a realization that just because that symbol is on the package, or just because you put it in the bin, it does not necessarily mean those products are going to have a second life.

In the wake of global changes to the market for recycled material, lawmakers here in Maine passed a new law that advocates are hoping transforms the way the state recycles.

As in small towns all over Maine, residents trickle into the recycling center in Ellsworth throwing boxes in one place, tin, aluminum, and some plastic containers into separate bins. But as in many places around the country, what is being collected here has changed, in large part because of a decision made on the other side of the world.

In 2018, China stopped taking most recycled material from places like the United States, citing the influx of contaminated foreign trash as an environmental hazard. Before that, China took 70 percent of America’s plastic recycling alone. The decision had a huge impact all over the world, recyclables piled up, and it cost more in the U.S. to process all the material. In 2019, here in Ellsworth, it led to a big change.

Ellsworth stopped recycling glass, several types of plastic, even boxboard like this. And it’s not surprising. Because according to Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, it costs 67 percent more to recycle than it does to throw something in a landfill.