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Jessica Haviland is the assistant director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association.
During the early days of the pandemic, the impact of solid waste disposal and recycling on the environment was not foremost in people’s minds. While it seemed prudent at the time, many towns ceased their recycling programs and curtailed operations at transfer stations and other solid waste facilities. The state delayed its single-use plastic bag ban, and many retailers removed their plastic bag recycling bins.
As we have learned more about how COVID-19 is transmitted, we have learned that proper personal protective equipment and physical distancing will keep waste and recycling handling safe. Making the minor adjustments recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in our recycling programs is worth the effort to protect our environment and contribute to our economy.
Residents disposing of solid waste and recyclables are usually outside, where risk of transmission is lower. While lines at facilities may be longer to allow physical distance, the danger to residents is relatively small. Wearing a mask further protects the attendants, your neighbors and you.
Unfortunately, the transfer station operators who may have helped unload your recyclables in past years will not be able to do that for a while.
Despite rumors about failing recycling markets, there are still markets out there for the materials we have traditionally dropped into recycling bins. With many people shopping online, demand for recycled paper to produce corrugated cardboard for shipping containers has increased dramatically. Recycled paper products are needed by mills that use it to manufacture the new corrugated cardboard boxes delivered to our doorsteps. Demand may have slowed for some other recyclable materials, but it is important to remember that investments are already being made to improve recycling in the U.S.
While reducing what we purchase (both the amount and type of products) and reusing what we already have are the most environmentally friendly waste solutions, there are many reasons to recycle.
Recycling contributes to our economy through employment, provision of raw materials to industry, and private sector taxes. Best estimates from a 2016 EPA study indicate the recycling industry provided more than 750,000 jobs, paid more than $36 billion in wages and almost $7 billion in taxes.
Recycling also helps our environment. Perhaps the most important reason to recycle is that recyclable materials, including a number of plastics, are made from natural resources, not all of which are renewable. Recycling saves energy and conserves natural resources that can be put to better use than throw-away packaging and will be in increasing demand as our population grows.
On the reuse front, leading experts at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development in consultation with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention revised its retail business guidance to allow reusable bags again.
Guidance on all aspects of business precautions for COVID-19 can be found at maine.gov/decd/checklists/retail-businesses. This is at the discretion of store management, but shoppers will be able to take their reusable bags into stores that allow them to bag their own groceries.
During the pandemic, we have generated an excess of plastic bags. This revised guidance provides us the opportunity to reduce one source of unnecessary plastic waste. Plastics have proven harmful to wildlife and most aquatic species. Close to home, evolving research indicates the ultra-small particles that plastics eventually break down into are harmful to lobster larvae.
Lastly, we can reduce waste and related disposal costs by selling or donating used clothing and household items to thrift stores or reuse centers. With many people spending more time at home, solid waste facility operators have noticed increased waste from people cleaning out their houses, apartments and garages. Selling or donating usable items reduces our waste stream and saves tax dollars.
So please, do your part to reduce, reuse and recycle.