PORTLAND, Maine — Paper or plastic?

When Mainers are in the checkout lines at their local grocery or department stores, local landfill managers hope they pick paper bags or bring their own reusable ones, if possible.

It’s not that the plastic bags can’t be recycled, exactly. It’s that, despite innovations in recycling technology that make almost any household item recyclable, those darned plastic bags continue to cause headaches for waste management officials.

They can’t be sorted using the same automated equipment that divvies up most everything else thrown into the all-inclusive single-stream recycling bins, and that’s even if the pesky things stay in the bins long enough to make it that far.

“They’re a litter problem, because they’re so light, they blow away [when left in bins] curbside,” said Kevin Roche, general manager of the Portland-based ecomaine, which operates a recycling facility, waste-to-energy plant and landfill.

So the warning from some municipal waste management leaders is this: Choose wisely at the checkout line, or they may start choosing for you.

In Portland, a city task force that has already eyed the possible ban of nonrecyclable polystyrene foam packaging will next take a good, hard look at reducing use of plastic bags in the area, city environmental program manager Troy Moon said.

“In the winter, the bags get buried under snow,” said Peter Owen, public works director for the city of Bath, which operates its own municipal landfill. “When the snow melts, those plastic bags become little kites and get strewn everywhere through the woods. It’s a nightmare. We need 10 people working eight hours a day for two weeks to clean it up.

“We didn’t have these problems before plastic,” he said. “Paper bags get wet and break down quickly. Most things in the environment get brittle under the elements, but plastic bags last forever.”

Roche said the plastic bags get twisted up in the gears and sorting wheels of ecomaine’s otherwise precise system of conveyor belts and equipment designed to separate the paper, glass, metal and harder plastics.

“We have to process them by hand,” he said. “There’s no automated process to sort them, yet.

“We added plastic bags [to the list of products we recycle at ecomaine] because people were putting them in their recycling bins anyway, and if we had to pick them out, we might as well do something with them,” Roche said.

In addition to tipping fees to accept waste from 46 owner and member communities, ecomaine receives revenues by selling the recyclable material to manufacturers who use it to make other products.

Moon, a board member for ecomaine, said paper-based products can fetch between $60 and $100 per ton on the market, while harder plastic containers can be worth $500 or more per ton.

The plastic shopping bags? They’re compressed to plastic lumber, an alternative to wood. But they’re not greatly sought after, Moon said, worth around $4 or $5 per ton, not enough to cover the hourly wages of employees plucking and collecting them from conveyor belts.

“When we have to market them, there’s little domestic market for them,” Roche said.

“They may be convenient for the public, but they’re the bane of the landfill [operators’] existence,” Owen said. “I don’t know what the answer is, other than to just get rid of them completely.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.