PORTLAND, Maine — As a high-profile fight continues over waste management for 187 Bangor-area towns, a cluster of private businesses based in southern Maine are finding success carving out smaller niches within recycling programs here and, increasingly, elsewhere.
The bottle redemption center operator Clynk announced last month that it will double its footprint by expanding to 51 Hannaford stores in New York by the end of the year. It will serve those centers with a new recycling plant in Scotia, New York.
Earlier this year, Biddeford entrepreneur and Democratic state Rep. Marty Grohman launched the subscription-based Hellocycle that sends customers boxes they can use to mail in small and hard-to-recycle items.
And this summer, the Portland curbside composting startup Garbage to Garden scooped up cash in business pitch contests. In June, it won $100,000 from Greenlight Maine and $10,000 in services at a Gorham Savings Bank contest, during which founder Tyler Frank said the company grew revenue about 40 percent in 2015 and that it would use additional funding to support an expansion to the Boston area.
All three companies are part of a trend in private companies finding opportunity on the edges of the waste stream, where Clynk founder and CEO Clayton Kyle said there’s still a lot of room to grow.
“The waste story in this country is still the Wild West,” Kyle said. “There is a lot of opportunity and a lot of things that we can do better given the technology and economic strength of this country.”
In Kyle’s realm, there’s a little less wildness, as bottle bills requiring manufacturers, retailers and customers to pay deposits on individual containers support the business. But those bottle bills do differ by state, which was a challenge the company had to meet when expanding to New York.
“It’s not like you can just take our model and drop it into other geographies,” Kyle said, noting that, unlike Maine, New York’s bottle bill does not include liquor, wine or iced tea.
That makes Kyle’s business a little different from recent entrants to the recycling market that rely more on changing consumer behavior.
Generally, Kyle said, “finding business solutions where people can provide a service and make a profit, that’s a challenge,” but he noted that organic waste management remains a hot area.
In the case of Garbage to Garden, competing composting firm We Compost It! and HelloCycle, the companies rely, at least in part, on registering customers separately from municipal waste management systems, though that’s starting to change for composting companies.
We Compost It! last year landed a contract with Kennebunk to run a municipal curbside composting program.
The relatively new subscription services all operate on monthly payments in roughly the same range, with different tiers for homes and businesses. We Compost It! charges $8.99 a month for its basic weekly home pickup; Garbage to Garden charges $14; and Hellocycle charges $9 a month.
Grohman, Hellocycle’s founder, said he hopes the company will catch a specific audience — one that’s not enthusiastic enough about traveling, perhaps to different places, to recycle items such as light bulbs and batteries, but that still feels guilty about tossing them in the trash.
“You can recycle almost anything if there’s enough of it in one place,” Grohman said. “The hard part is getting enough of it in one place.”
Clynk founder Kyle, who’s a Hellocycle subscriber, said part of making that happen is having consumers separate and sort recyclables themselves.
“Everyone would love to have that separation be technology driven,” he said, but the technology isn’t there to do that reliably.
And there’s a lot of value to increasing the amount of waste that is separated and improving how it is separated.
“Most of the plastic bottles in this country cannot be used again as a bottle, because they’ve been contaminated in the waste stream,” Kyle said. “That’s a challenge because we’ve really emphasized the single-stream way of recycling, and that mixing all together reduces their value.”
For now, Kyle said he sees recycling startups as key to helping change consumer behavior and prove new recycling systems can work, without waiting for legislation that he said can be more difficult “because there are so many stakeholders involved.”
“Finding ways to get the value out of products in the waste stream requires that businesses find ways to make it easier for the customer to participate,” Kyle said.