THORNDIKE — A diminished overseas recycling market has resulted in a lot more plastic going into landfills over the last month in central Maine.

The Unity Area Regional Recycling Center has stopped accepting most types of plastic items at its facility in Thorndike, which serves residents of Dixmont, Freedom, Jackson, Knox, Montville, Thorndike, Troy and Unity. Effective immediately, the center’s website states that all No. 1 and Nos. 3 through 7 plastics no longer can be recycled in Thorndike.

This means items such as peanut butter containers, bottles for vegetable oil and salad dressing, shampoo bottles, water bottles, aspirin and medicine bottles, other squeezable bottles and miscellaneous plastics now probably will be dumped into the trash in these towns.

Color and clear No. 2 plastics, which generally consist of milk jugs and detergent bottles, still are being accepted by the center. No. 4 stretch plastics, which include Ziploc bags, plastic shopping bags and bubble wrap, also are still accepted.

Stanley Besancon, who manages the facility, blames the vanishing market in China for the center’s decision last month to stop taking the mixed plastics from residents.

“The market has been bad for about a year now,” Besancon said, “especially with China reducing the imported recycling from the United States and other parts of the world.”

In the past, China had been importing and repurposing about half of the world’s unwanted recyclables. But in 2013, China implemented a policy called the Green Fence to reduce the amount of food and trash that it imported. Most recently, China has cracked down on what its regulators call “foreign garbage” by placing a ban on 24 kinds of recyclable materials and limiting the amount of contamination levels in mixed paper it receives to 1 percent. As a result, recyclers are having a hard time finding buyers for products such as mixed paper and mixed plastics.

“We’re not in it to make money, but to do the right thing,” Besancon said. For a while, despite the drop in value, the center continued to take all plastics at a loss and let the value of the other materials absorb the cost; but that situation became untenable. So, without the demand from China and having a hard time finding domestic buyers, the Unity area center had to nix most plastics.

“That’s a lot of plastic,” said Betty Gross, a Connecticut native who summers at Lake Winnecook, after learning of the center’s new policy. She stopped at the facility Friday morning to drop off her plastic and metal recyclables.

Besancon pulled a water bottle out of her bin and told her the center couldn’t take that plastic any longer.

Gross said she hopes the market grows in the U.S. so recyclers don’t have to be so dependent upon foreign importers.

“It’s all going to go in the garbage,” she said. “There’s no other option.”

Milk jugs sit in the bin designated for No. 2 plastics Friday morning at the Unity Area Recycling Center in Thorndike. The jugs are among the few plastics the center now is accepting after a decline in plastic recycling exports to China within the last year. Staff photo by Emily Higginbotham

Residents such as Gross do have one other option, but it comes with inconvenience and at a price.

Ecomaine, the nonprofit that handles recyclables for about a third of Maine’s population, is able to take mixed plastics from residents whose centers can no longer find a buyer, according to Matt Grondlin, who handles communications for the recycler.

The nonprofit has not been affected by China’s dwindling plastics market, Grondlin said, as it always has been able to sell its plastic materials domestically. He said he had heard of smaller organizations having a hard time selling their plastics, but thinks the U.S. West Coast has been hit harder.

“We’re still being able to move plastic pretty well. It’s been a pretty clean bale,” he said. “It’s stayed pretty consistent.”

Maine residents whose communities don’t have a partnership with ecomaine — which is based in Portland — are able to bring their mixed plastics to ecomaine’s facility, but they will be charged a fee.

“They would be charged the gate rate and that fluctuates with the market; it’s not a set rate like in our communities,” Grondlin said.

As for the Unity area center, Besancon said he hopes the center can find another buyer so it could continue taking all plastics.

“It’s a civic duty,” he said.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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