Economics Researchers Probe Potential Savings in Trash

A fully functional table saw, a $45 flashlight, a bag of canned food, baby strollers, car seats, plastic toys, bowling balls and returnable bottles and cans are some of the things residents of Maine communities have thrown in the trash this past summer and fall.

Those discarded items could have been reused or recycled, according to George Criner, professor and director of the University of Maine School of Economics, who is overseeing a statewide trash analysis project to determine the contents of Maine’s residential trash.

The research, commissioned by the Maine Office of State Planning, will help state and municipal policymakers understand for the first time in more than a decade just what people are throwing away that might be reused, recycled or composted, instead of buried or incinerated. The economic implications of recycling and composting more and discarding less could influence consumer behavior in addition to policy.

Early results have revealed that almost 20 percent of the household waste recently examined in 17 communities in 14 counties could have been recycled. If food and miscellaneous non-recyclable paper were composted, the household sector could divert roughly one-half of all waste from the landfill or incinerator, says Criner, the principal investigator of the state-funded project.

“Solid waste management is costly, and is not going to get any less expensive,” Criner says. “One purpose of the study is to update previous estimates on the content of Maine household garbage. Knowing the contents of the waste stream is helpful in designing effective and efficient recycling programs. Once all the data is in, we will correlate recycling rates with municipal programs. For example, does the data bear out our expectation that municipalities with pay-as-your-throw systems have higher recycling levels, and if so, by how much?”

The study is particularly important as more municipalities consider moving to single-stream recycling, and as many communities in the greater Bangor area are beginning to weigh the future of local solid waste management as waste-to-energy plant contracts are due to expire in 2018, says Criner, who has researched solid waste management issues since the late 1980s.

Whether trash is recycled, composted or burned in waste-to-energy plants, each option has an economic consequence. Some alternatives are more profitable than others, and some are extremely costly.

Economics undergraduate Travis Blackmer of Dedham, one of the students coordinating the analysis, compares selling a tractor-trailer load of recycled materials, such as compacted milk jugs, to a recycler for thousands of dollars with paying out thousands of dollars in hauling and disposal fees.

Once people understand “this is what’s in Maine’s trash and this is the money we’re leaving on the table,” more people will embrace recycling and waste stream reduction, he says.

“Towns are glad for the waste composition assessment,” says Karl-dieter Chandler, a civil engineering student from Bartlett, N.H. who is coordinating the project with Blackmer and David Silver, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and environmental science from Orono. “They want the data in hand to get townspeople on board.”

The project is mid-way through its second sort. On designated sorting days at each site in July and August, researchers analyzed 400-700 pounds waste per day in the 17 participating municipalities — separating, sorting, weighing and documenting 65 subcategories of materials in the garbage. A second team is now revisiting and combing through trash in the same communities to compare “seasonal” garbage variations.

The project will end in early 2012 with each participating municipality getting a report, in addition to the publication of a paper outlining the study results.

“We will always have garbage, but we don’t have to keep the status quo in dealing with it,” Criner says. The research is showing that while the content of the trash is different from town to town, a general theme is emerging. “Maine can do better with recycling,” he says.

Contact: George Criner, (207) 581-3151; Karl Chandler, (207) 461-3516; Travis Blackmer, (207) 735-4574