In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a trash truck empties trash cans on Park Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Michael Haedicke is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a faculty fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. Travis Blackmer is a lecturer at the University of Maine School of Economics and a Mitchell Center faculty fellow. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or the Mitchell Center. Haedicke is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Across the United States, nearly 70 million households have access to municipal recycling programs. On balance, the benefits of these programs are significant — whether measured in terms of reduced environmental burdens from burying or burning trash, natural resources that are conserved and reused, or revenue generated by municipalities through the sale of recyclable materials.

But in Maine, many communities are transitioning away from traditional municipal recycling. As researchers affiliated with the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine, we and our colleagues have studied disruptions in waste management including the disappearance of these recycling programs.

Recently, we interviewed stakeholders throughout Maine’s waste management system, from policy makers to private businesses and regional coordinators. We asked each person about the challenges facing waste management and recycling in Maine, and what it would take to make the system more resilient and adaptable to change.

We learned that recycling programs in Maine’s communities are facing a triple-whammy of threats, including changes in international recycling markets, public health fears related to the COVID-19 crisis, and disruptions in new waste management technologies in central Maine. Responding to these threats demands innovative thinking about the waste management system as a whole.

First, most of the recyclable waste that is collected in Maine communities is processed in southern Maine or Massachusetts and then shipped overseas. Recycling is a global industry, and in the 21st century, processors in China have been the most important purchasers of U.S.-generated recyclables.

But in 2018, the Chinese government announced a new policy, known as The National Sword, which limited the volume and type of imported recyclables China would accept. Demand for recyclables on the world market evaporated, and municipal recycling programs flipped from being revenue-generators to net costs for many Maine communities, especially when considering additional hauling for curbside collection.

Then, in 2020, COVID-19 struck. Little was then known about how the virus traveled between people, and many feared that the risk of transmission through contaminated objects was high.

Recycling involves the hands-on work of sorting and baling materials, and these fears led many municipalities — within Maine and elsewhere in the United States — to suspend their recycling programs. One stakeholder told us that  “For a while, a lot of towns said we’re not going to recycle because we’re scared of the virus.”

A third factor has contributed to the disappearance of recycling programs in central Maine. In 2019, the Coastal Resources of Maine plant opened in Hampden. Coastal Resources planned to employ new technologies to separate recyclable from non-recyclable waste for any of the 100 communities that wished to co-mingle these streams. Cities such as Bangor responded with a “one-bin-all-in” strategy that no longer required households to sort trash for curbside recycling pickup.

But Coastal Resources unexpectedly stopped operating in 2020. The committee representing towns that sent their waste to the facility is now involved in a dispute with the facility’s out-of-state owners, who have reportedly failed to respond to a third-party offer to purchase the facility and resume operations.

Bangor and other communities have not been able to capture recyclables without the Coastal Resources facility in operation. In our interviews, community leaders described how difficult it was to reverse course and ask households to begin sorting their waste again. As one person put it, “You can’t unscramble that egg.”

These three disruptions — National Sword, COVID-19 and the unexpected closure of Coastal Resources — highlight challenges of building a waste management system that minimizes environmental impacts and remains economically viable.

Many of our interviewees argued that solutions need to involve upstream thinking, including redesigning products and packaging to reduce the amount of waste that is produced. Maine’s new law requiring extended producer responsibility for packaging represents an important step in this direction.

If it works as intended, this law may reduce the volume of recyclable material in the waste stream — an important change given that the overall environment has become less supportive of recycling as a way to manage waste.