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Gilford shows how to rebuilding recycling programs after industry collapse

  • Jodie Gallant of Gilford separates her recycling at the Gilford Recycling Center on Tuesday. The signage at the center has helped increase efforts to recycle at the center. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • A front loader puts cardboard into a compacter at the Gilford Recycling Center on Tuesday.

  • Jodie Gallant of Gilford drops off her recycling at the Gilford Recycling Center. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/25/2021 8:00:34 PM

As the recycling industry struggles to recover from the one-two punch of China upending global markets followed by the continuing complication of the pandemic, one town is seeing some success by reinventing its whole approach, starting with communication.

“Where your effort needs to be is educating your community. You have to educate people if you want recycling to succeed,” said Meghan Theriault, Public Works director in Gilford, which just won a statewide industry award for “engaging residents.”

A case in point, she said: Styrofoam. That ubiquitous packing material can’t be recycled even though it carries the misleading three-arrows-in-a-triangle symbol. The symbol doesn’t mean an item can be recycled; it only indicates what the item is made of.

Letting residents know about the problem with Styrofoam, so they won’t toss it in the recycling bin, can save the town money because it means less of its recycling stream will be rejected by buyers.

“We’re trying to promote recycling in a positive way,” said Theriault.

Gilford, a town of 7,300, has completely revamped its recycling program in the last two years. Residents formerly used Laconia’s transfer station for their trash but Gilford has built its own facility. Just as importantly, it switched from single-stream, in which all potentially recyclable materials are jumbled together, to requiring that residents separate out different items.

This comes as the world’s recycling industry is still adjusting to China’s decision three years ago to stop taking huge amounts of material, regardless of quality. The price of most recycled materials collapsed when that happened, turning a profitable operation into a big loss for many towns and cities.

“A lot of communities just stopped. It was cheaper to just throw it away as trash,” Theriault said.

Among the most unusual attempts to restart the industry is occurring in Maine, which has passed a statewide law that will make producers and distributors of products pay for the cost of trashing or recycling the packaging, rather than leaving it entirely up to taxpayers or volunteers. This could provide an incentive for companies to cut back on packaging, helping reduce the problem rather than just try to deal with it after the fact.

A common response by communities has been ending single-stream collection, as Gilford has done. This is ironic because the widespread adoption of single-stream collection more than a decade ago was seen as the best way to increase recycling by making it easier for people to participate.

Getting residents to separate their recycling lets the town bundle items like aluminum cans, some plastics and paper, so they can take advantage of fluctuations in the market when the time comes to sell it or pay to dispose of it, Theriault said.

For example, properly sorted and baled mixed paper went from being sold for $20 a ton in February to $105 a ton in September, while clean, baled cardboard rose from $80 to $190 a ton. Gilford has collected 173,000 pounds of mixed paper through October, roughly on par with past years, but its cardboard collection has soared, presumably a result of more items being bought online. Last year through October Gilford had collected 203,00 pounds of cardboard; this year it has collected 366,000 pounds, an increase of some 80%.

Many prices for recycled material have rebounded from low points earlier in the pandemic. The most profitable at the moment is No. 2 plastic, the kind used in milk jugs, which has gone up 60% in a year to more than $1,200 per ton, according to the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, more even than aluminum cans.

A part of Gilford’s outreach involves telling residents this.

“We let people know. They think, OK, it’s a pain that I have to separate my stuff but we just made a bunch of money for the town,” Theriault said.

Gilford has also created storage areas where it can hold tons of material until it has a full tractor-trailer load, which reduces per-ton shipping costs.

Gilford beat out 10 other communities for first place in the “engaging residents” best practices contest held by New Hampshire The Beautiful, a non-profit created by state beverage distributors and grocers.

Theriault ticked off a number of things the town has done, from lots of small colorful signs with specific advice to an active Facebook group, to future plans for “trash on the lawn day” at the middle school.

“The idea is to see how much actually can be recycled,” said Theriault.

(David Brooks can be reached at (603) 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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