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Study: More Recycling Could Slash Maine's Garbage Volume
11/07/2011   Reported By: Tom Porter

Almost one-fifth of the household waste that Mainers discard could be recycled. That's one of the early findings of a statewide study by the University of Maine. The study also suggests that if food and certain paper waste were composted, the amount of garbage headed to the landfill or incinerator could be cut by roughly half.

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Think twice before you throw anything away--it might have a more useful life than it does taking up space in a landfill or fueling an incinerator. That seems to be the lesson learned from an ongoing study being carried out by UMaine's School of Economics.

"The aim of the study is to document what is in the household waste stream so that municipalities and state policy-makers can make wise decisions," says Professor George Criner, who is overseeing the project. "Solid waste management is very expensive for municipalities, and if you don't know what's in the trash it's difficult to make intelligent decisions."

The analysis, which was commissioned by the Maine State Planning Office, is checking out garbage samples from 17 Maine communities, from Houlton in the north to Ogunquit in the south. As one of the student co-ordinators on the project, economics undergraduate Travis Blackmer spent a good chunk of his summer vacation time at various sort sites across Maine, going through bag after bag of garbage--often in searing heat.

"We'd collect the sample of garbage, and then we'd open up a bag, we'd dump it on the table, kind of sift it around a little bit and look at it, and we'd sort it into different bins," Blackmer says.

Blackmer and his team sort about 500 pounds of garbage a day. Over 17 days, that equates to more than 8,000 pounds of material. We're not talking here about the stuff that's sent to be recycled, but real trash, only fit for the landfill or the incinerator--at least in theory.

The reality proved to be somewhat different, says Blackmer: A lot of what people had discarded was not trash at all-- "a fair amount of clothes and shoes that didn't look to be too far gone," he says.

Blacker says some of his colleagues on the project were able to take possession of some perfectly serviceable items. "One guy had a t-shirt he took home and washed and wore the next day to work. Toys: One individual that worked this summer had a small child and he'd take home little race cars, like Hot Wheels, and he'd clean them and take them home to his kid."

"Bowling balls, and flashlights, VCRs, DVDs, DVD players, you know those types of things," says Karl Chandler, a team leader on Part 2 of the project, which is currently underway. "Those types of things, if they're still in working order, then they're not technically trash."

Early results show nearly 20 percent of household waste could have been recycled. And if consumers were able to compost all the food and non-recyclable paper they throw out, the implications are even more striking. "Somewhere between 30 and 50 percent by weight is compostable, because of a lot of the paper is compostable too, like paper towels, and tissue paper--that kind of stuff," Chandler says.

State officials hope some serious money can be saved using data compiled from this research project. George MacDonald manages the waste management and recycling program at the Maine State Planning Office, which commissioned the study.

"In most communities the cost of managing solid waste are often the second or third most expensive item on the budget following the schools," MacDonald says.

He says the final results of the report will be released next spring. "And we're hoping that that information will help us design maybe a different approach to encouraging people to recycle. It may help some policy-makers who are looking at ways of getting more materials away from disposal facilities."

In other words, the aim is to eliminate some of the waste from the business of waste management.


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