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Executives Discuss Evolving State of Recycling at Maine’s E2Tech Municipal Waste Conference

Image Source: SWANA Presentation at E2 Tech Conference with EPA data from 2017:;

Image Source: SWANA Presentation at E2 Tech Conference with EPA data from 2017:;

Although recycling is still the most successful waste diversion and management strategy of the past few decades, there are several problems with it and action needs to be taken by all stakeholders in order to maximize the potential benefits of this highly visible industry.

That was the primary takeaway from a recent virtual conference on Municipal Solid Waste Disposal and Recycling in Maine, sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech). It featured industry leaders, including Kevin Roche, the CEO of sustainable waste management company EcoMaine, and David Biderman, the CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), who offered a number of interesting perspectives and data points.

Biderman cited 2017 figures from the US Environmental Protection Agency that show a bit over half of municipal solid waste (MSW) being sent to landfills, with about a quarter getting recycled, and just under one-tenth composted. Unfortunately, China’s 2018 implementation of its National Sword Policy, which banned the imports of a variety of materials, has curtailed US export of recyclables. As a result, local governments are accepting fewer materials and have faced increased operating costs for recycling programs. 

Thus, it’s possible that a resident’s recyclables might not actually get recycled. Whether this happens or not depends heavily on one’s geographic locations and the market for the material involved at the time of the recyclable’s collection. 
This contributes to the fact that landfilling is currently the dominant fate of MSW, as Roche mentioned. Unfortunately, landfilling not only emits more greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the environment but also represents a loss of potential money that could have been made from recovery of recyclable commodities. 

The effect is especially noticeable because a number of smaller landfills are closing, having reached their capacity, while larger regional landfills continue to grow. For instance, New England facilities will sometimes send excess waste to landfills in Ohio; the transportation process increases the impacts.

Roche noted that from 2005-2019, EcoMaine recovered 508,000 tons of recycling and saved communities about $36 million in landfill tipping fees. This gives insight into the need to improve the collection phase of typical curbside recycling by emphasizing reduction of non-recyclable materials in the recycling system. Less contamination lowers recycling fees by requiring less processing from material recovery facilities (MRFs) and reducing the amount of material that has to be diverted to landfills. As a result, communities can assist the production of usable recycled materials while saving money on processing costs and landfill fees. 

The recycling sector has taken its place as an essential industry that provides jobs, enhances the feasibility of a circular economy, and mitigates the effects of climate change; its ability to adapt to evolving conditions will be critical to its ongoing health.

Pete Dunn is EarthShift Globals marketing consultant and a freelance strategist and writer.

University of New Hampshire environmental engineering student Giovanni Guglielmi has been interning for EarthShift Global since the beginning of 2020. He is completing his degree work this year, with special focuses in life cycle engineering and waste management, and an eye towards working to mitigate climate change and prevent pollution.