Birds sit and fly above the trash of the Juniper Ridge Landfill, Wednesday, January 19, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine lost ground in its efforts to recycle more of its waste during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new state report. However, some advocates are hopeful that new waste reforms passed in recent years could eventually help turn things around.

While state law says that Maine should have recycled or composted at least half of its municipal waste by 2021, it missed that target, only recycling about 34 percent of trash in both 2020 and 2021, according to the new report from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. That’s down from recycling 38 percent of municipal waste in 2017.

There are no penalties for Maine missing that target. But the results are nevertheless dismaying to environmental groups, who would like to limit how much material is being consumed, then buried in the ground or burned for energy each year.

“The numbers really showed that we’re moving in the wrong direction in that we’re both recycling less and we’re making more trash for disposal,” says Sarah Nichols, who oversees waste programs at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The waste generation report from Maine DEP — which it produces for the Legislature every two years using data reported by individual facilities — identifies several challenges that are contributing to the problem.

Recycling has grown more expensive amid a tighter labor market and new restrictions from other countries. Many towns haven’t gone back to recycling after stopping it early in the coronavirus pandemic.

And more than 100 communities across Maine have been burning or burying most of their trash since the closure of a waste processing facility in Hampden in spring of 2020 — although an organization that represents those communities hopes to restart the plant this year.

In total, Mainers sent roughly 900,000 tons of municipal waste to landfills and waste-to-energy plants in 2021, up from roughly 700,000 tons in 2017.

Now, Maine is also backsliding in its progress toward another waste goal: state law indicates that Mainers should send less than 0.55 tons of waste, on a per person basis, to landfills or waste-to-energy plants each year. The state met that goal in 2017, but the per capita disposal rate has since gone up to almost 0.7 tons during 2020 and 2021.

While those numbers concern Nichols, she says lawmakers have recently passed some legislation that could help address the problem, including a plastic bag ban, a restriction on out-of-state demolition waste in the state landfill, and a program that will charge fees to companies that make packaging waste to support local recycling efforts.

“The numbers and the trends are troubling, but they’re not at all surprising, which is why we’ve worked so hard recently to pass pretty systemic changes to our waste policies,” Nichols says. “So I do unfortunately think things are going to get a little worse before they get better when these laws go into effect.”

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.