Friday, August 9, 2019

Notes from the “Trash Girls”: Interns share results from Windham’s recycling pilot program

Fans, plastic fencing, plastic bags, water hoses,
lawn chairs are NOT recyclable items 
By Meddy Smith and Abby Constantine

For the past 10 weeks, we have been part of a pilot internship program to reduce recycling contamination. For the first two weeks of the internship, the two of us, as well as eight other interns from Scarborough, South Portland and Falmouth, had an extensive training at Ecomaine, the facility in Portland that processes most of Southern Maine’s recycling and trash.  

Every week, we attended meetings and workshops with our fellow interns and discussed ideas to reduce contamination in our communities and improve the recycling stream. Monday afternoons we went to the Silver Bullets in Windham and physically removed contamination from them. We were disappointed to find so much trash and inappropriate materials in these containers that are only for recycling. We often found items like kites, toys and books that could have been donated for someone else to use. 

During our eight weeks of curbside data collection and education, we reached over 900 households throughout the town. At each house, we evaluated the bin, indicated the contamination on the paper tag, attached the tag on the bin, and marked the tag color and type of contaminates on a spreadsheet.

This way, we could observe improvement and see the most frequent contaminates. The items we saw most often in bins were plastic bags (shopping bags, pet food bags etc), thin plastic film (like food wrap packaging) and Styrofoam. these long mornings driving “The Leaf” – Windham’s leased electric car- we received a lot of positive feedback and had great conversations with Windham residents. Many people had questions for us and were very interested in what we were doing.

A lot of people wondered why contamination in recycling is such a big deal. So, here’s what we learned.

The Problem: 
Many items that people put in their bins cannot be efficiently processed at Ecomaine. These materials, such as Styrofoam, thin plastic film and trash (clothes or toys etc.), are what make up the contamination that the facility sorts out and what is causing such turmoil in the global recycling market.

 The more contamination in the recycling, the less desirable it is to buyers and the less they will pay for it. As the contamination rate rose exponentially around the globe, the countries that used to accept our recycling closed their borders because it was so inefficient to process. This means that ecomaine struggles to find buyers and they must pay to get rid of some materials. As a nonprofit who pays dividends to the member-owner communities, towns are now having to pay high prices to continue to recycle. This has been a burden on Maine towns and some smaller towns discontinued recycling altogether. This is a tragic blow to the progress of environmental policy and action in Maine and as towns and residents we should do what we can to change this unfortunate pattern.

The Solution:
Ecomaine’s goal is to get the contamination under control and to be able to sell the recycling and pay
Interns Abby Constantine and Meddy Smith (aka The Trash Girls)
share their findings about Windham recycling
 with the Windham Town Council 
dividends back to the member communities, including Windham. The good news is that we have all the power to eliminate the contamination and make this goal happen. Windham residents can reduce their contamination and lower the financial burden on the town, keep recycling out of the landfill, and contribute to a greener system.

Recycling is a very important process for us as residents to take part in because it encourages manufacturers to use materials more than once, saves materials from the landfills and protects our finite resources.

In just the first month of the pilot project we lowered Windham’s curbside contamination rate 4%. We consistently gave out more and more green tags and less yellow tags over time, meaning that we observed less curbside contamination. We hope that our education efforts reduced the total contamination even further and that residents will continue to stay informed on local recycling and keep trying to reduce their contamination.

To learn more about what you can recycle, go to or download the ‘recyclopedia’ app where you can search to see if something can be recycled at our facility.

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