The Universal Notebook: Recycling myths and mistakes

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Earlier this summer I gave a few relatives a tour of our fair town. They were amazed that we were still in Brunswick when I took them to the Graham Road landfill, which is closer to Lisbon Falls than it is to downtown Brunswick. Historically, most towns dumped their trash out of sight on the edge of town.

They were also amazed to see the small mountain of trash Brunswick built between 1984 and 2021. Even neatly covered, the trash mound must be the highest point in town. And the fact that it overlooks the Androscoggin, once Maine’s most polluted river, is worrisome. 

Edgar Allen BeemYou can hide 400,000 tons of trash under a blanket on the edge of town, but you can’t stop the ammonia in its wastewater from leaching into the river. That’s why the Graham Road facility was closed back in April. Now our trash gets trucked to Portland where Ecomaine burns it to create electricity.

Like all town residents, we still dutifully put our refuse out on the curb each week sorted into two containers, one for trash and one for recyclables. But the dirty little secret is that most post-consumer waste cannot be reused and the myth that it can be fuels our guilt-free consumption.

Take plastic bags, for example. Progressive towns like Brunswick have banned single-use plastic grocery bags. We feel better about our conspicuous consumption carrying our purchases in reusable bags now. But what about all the packaging we carry around in those reusable bags?

Since China stopped buying our trash in 2018, we have largely stopped pretending that single-sort recycling collection makes much of a difference. I know I feel dirty every time I drop a glass jar in the waste basket. Apparently, there is no market for recycled glass anymore.

Yes, we have a trunkload of Hannaford and Trader Joe’s reusable grocery bags, but we also have a cabinet full of the yellow plastic bags the Portland Press Herald comes in every morning. Plastic film is not recyclable, unless you count filling it with dog poop and popping it in the trash.

In the feel-good environmentalism department, I now own a soft grey t-shirt with a raven emblazoned on it that claims to have been made from six plastic bottles. But the only packaging I know for sure is recycled in my family are egg cartons. Daughter Hannah has a surfeit of chickens and eggs, so she is always in need of cardboard egg crates.

We all mean well, but we all fail miserably. Despite our best efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, we still pollute.

A classic example of the recycling myth is described in Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town,” a memoir in the form of an exposé about growing up in Mexico, Maine, across the Androscoggin from the Oxford paper mill (more recently Boise Cascade, now Nine Dragons) in Rumford. 

Arsenault’s father worked at the mill and she grew up in what became known as “Cancer Valley,” owing to the toxins the mill produced along with a livelihood for her family. In the first chapter, Arsenault describes a line of trucks in 1988 hauling sludge to the edge of town – sludge laden with the same heavy metals, PCBs, and PFAS that were spread on farm fields all over Maine as fertilizer.

The sludge spreading was directed by Resource Conservation Services, a company owned by a former Maine Audubon official, in what was supposed to be a win-win organic recycling effort. Instead, it ruined the health and land values of countless Mainers. 

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.