Recycling and Reality; Finding a middle ground

There are extreme views in every issue with which life confronts us. Recycling is no different. Some people make great efforts to recycle every scrap of discarded material that falls into their possession. Others routinely toss all unwanted items into the trash. The first might argue that the other is lazy and careless. The other might argue that the first is foolish and obsessive. Whoís right?

As is the case with many issues, the best solution is found in the middle. Both of the arguments cited above could be correct. Both extremes are best avoided. Sometimes recycling is the answer, and sometimes it isnít.

Super-recyclers are often motivated by a high regard for the environment. There is no denying the fact that activists have helped turn the tide in many parts of our country from ecological degeneration to encouraging restoration. Industry leaders, on the other hand, may see other priorities such as efficiency as paramount. Their efforts contribute positively to other facets of our quality of life.

Fears that environmental protection measures will ruin our economy have thus far proven to be unfounded. Fears that mankindís commercial activities will soon destroy our planet are also unwarranted. The person who believes that recycling is the answer to every trash problem is just as imprudent as the one who ignores it completely.

The balance struck so far in our society seems to have kept extremists in check, allowing progress in both the economy and the environment. (another victory for the American system!) By promoting informed decisions through a series of articles on recycling, we hope to contribute to this trend. v

Environmental and Economic Concerns

he two most common factors considered in waste disposal decisions are the effect of those decision on our environment and on our budgets. As was mentioned in the Recycling and Reality article, these concerns should not be over-emphasized nor should they be ignored.

The decisions that local managers of trash have to make today are not ones that will make the same impacts on the environment that they might have years ago. The major determinations have already been made. Laws and regulations dictate that solid waste be handled in a way which will not damage the environment like older methods.

The fate of MSW in Hancock County is quite predictable. Much of it will be incinerated at PERC, some will be recycled and some will be directly landfilled. The difference "environmentally" between the three options is not easy to determine. Maineís "Waste Management Hierarchy" places recycling below waste reduction and above incineration. Landfilling is at the bottom of the list.

The Waste Management Hierarchy
Source Reduction
Recycling (material recovery)
Incineration (energy recovery)

In theory, these methods are now all environmentally safe. Large expenditures for infrastructure are made to safeguard the environment when modern solid waste facilities are built. In practice, no waste disposal system is perfect. Even recycling carries an environmental price tag. Collecting and processing recyclables in addition to conventional disposal burns more fuel than would be needed to operate a "one-bin" system. In some cases, the value of the energy to collect recyclables may rival the market value of the recovered material itself. In poorly designed or improperly executed programs, there can be net losses to our budgets and our environment.

The point can be illustrated by one of the superstars of the recycling movement, aluminum beverage cans... The principal reason for the high value of recovered aluminum is not the scarcity of the ores from which the virgin material is produced, it is the savings in energy which can be accomplished by recycling the metal. Aluminum, which makes up 8 percent of the earthís crust, is one of the worldís most plentiful elements, but the process that converts ore into metal is an extremely heavy user of electrical energy. Remelting recovered aluminum and remaking and shipping cans uses 80% less energy than making cans from virgin metal. Now, turn to another highly energy-intensive product--gasoline. It weighs seven-and-a-half pounds a gallon; beverage cans weigh a little more than half an ounce each. If a well meaning environmentalist loads three cases of empty cans into a six-cylinder station wagon and drives a ten mile round trip to a recycling center, the environment may well have been a loser in the transaction. It is likely that this person burned 3.75 pounds of gasoline and generated ten pounds of carbon dioxide to recover 2.5 pounds of aluminum.

This believable, but hopefully rare situation illustrates that good intentions arenít always enough to achieve admirable goals. Of course, even the best designed programs arenít "fool-proof" and thankfully, most of our efforts have better outcomes. This story is not meant to discourage recycling, but to encourage "smart recycling". It was published in a fascinating book on solid waste by Judd H. Alexander called In Defense of Garbage. Itís written from a businessmanís perspective and includes insights on waste reduction, collection and disposal. It also describes the sometimes overlooked benefits of modern products and packaging with regards to the solid waste "crisis" (hence, the "defense" of garbage). You may not agree with all that you read in this book, but it is definitely worthwhile reading for the solid waste professional. Itís available at the Bangor Public Library.

"By definition", waste reduction is the most environmentally favorable of the four waste management methods. It is the practice of consciously choosing a process, product or packaging that reduces waste flows. This is a great idea that usually yields positive effects, but, like our illustration above, environmental results are not always what we might expect. What intuitively seems correct, may not be so. For example, reusable bottles are often recommended as being "earth friendly". In his book, Mr. Alexander thoroughly documents how light weight "one-way" milk containers are big savers of energy when compared to the old-style heavy, reusable glass container delivery systems. When we factor in recycling and energy recovered from the discarded paper and plastic at PERC, the scales tip even further toward the disposables. Again, this illustration is not intended to discourage source reduction, but to show that thereís more to the picture than we sometimes realize.

If not recycled, waste from our county usually ends up at PERC where a series of manual and automated procedures turns waste into energy. Where does all the stuff go? Non-combustibles (25% by weight) are removed and recycled or used for landfill cover. Burnables (70%) are used as fuel for generating electricity. Non-processables (5%) and ash are landfilled. By volume, 80% of the material brought to PERC is consumed as RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel). If is not the cleanest burning of fuels, but scrubbers on the exhaust stack remove most of the pollutants before they can escape to the air we breathe.

Besides non-processables and ash from PERC, there are other types of waste from our region that are landfilled including industrial process waste, sewage sludge, construction/demolition debris and some household waste. Modern landfills are often designed to enclose the waste in a "dry tomb". Rainwater that does filter through is captured in a collection system to be processed in a treatment plant. Landfills are not necessarily wasted land. They can be put to good use when they are full. Sawyer Environmental plans to turn its Hampden facility into a recreation area when it is no longer a landfill.

Cheerleading may cause some people to get started in waste reduction or recycling, but it wonít sustain a widespread movement by itself. If recycling is to make a bigger impact in rural Maine, it needs a total package of involvement. Any worthwhile cause should be supported by honest inquiry, thoughtful planning, sincere publicity and efficient execution.

  1. Research: Is recycling working in your community? Do you have clear objectives? Is your program meeting your goals? Is the system efficient enough to be environmentally friendly and economically workable?

  2. Planning: What is the best way to achieve your recycling goals? What changes could be made to improve the current system? How can you increase participation? What do you anticipate for needs in the future?

  3. Publicity: Do the residents of your community completely understand your program? Do they know how their participation affects them and their fellow citizens? How are they kept abreast of changes in the program?

  4. Execution: Are your solid waste management and operations well organized? Are workers motivated? Are citizens doing their part by separating items according to your guidelines? Are there common complaints?

There are Scrooges out there saying, "Bah humbug" to recycling. They think their towns pay way too much for their recycling programs. They may be right. Do the research and follow through, or it may not be worth what youíre paying. Communities and businesses have proven that recycling can work economically in Maine. v

Economic/Environmental Comparison of Waste Disposal Methods in Maine


Environmental Concerns/comments

Economic Concerns/comments



Eliminates unnecessary waste volumes and toxicity. Should be everyoneís "first step". Deciding what is "unnecessary" is often the hardest part. HCPC has information for homes and industry.

Serious source reduction efforts can save considerable amounts of money for businesses and households. Unnecessarily legislated "reductions" may cause unforeseen economic hardships.


Well-designed programs can reduce municipal costs for waste disposal while decreasing demand on supplies of raw materials and the need for imported energy. See enclosed flyer for more information. HCPC can customize this "Why Recycle" brochure for distribution in your town.

Municipalities should bear in mind effort and costs to residents that donít show up in the town budget. Drop-off areas need to be conveniently located, for instance. To make economic sense, programs should encourage a high rate of participation through general education and town ordinances.


Energy is recovered from refuse. Ash needs to be landfilled. More regulation of exhaust emissions is being considered.

Plants are expensive to build and maintain. Now that we have one nearby, it makes sense to use it. Transportation from remote locations is costly.


Modern landfills are much safer than old dumps. NIMBY problems and regulations make them difficult to site (like other solid waste facilities).

Regulations have made it too expensive to directly landfill MSW in most Maine communities. Incinerating reduces volumes by 80% but concentrates toxicity.