Monday, January 18, 2016

Maine shouldn't have to take trash from other states

My interest in the Maine waste stream began a couple years ago when I read an article about cancer cases among some Hampden residents who live near the now closed Pine Tree Landfill. It made me realize that many of us on the coast have gotten used to sending our trash inland and letting someone else live next to it, and I felt a little embarrassed. No one has ever proposed a state owned landfill or incinerator in Camden or anywhere close to us. In Camden, we busy ourselves fighting against ambulance stations and rehab clinics for the rich and famous, while in Hampden they fight against mountains of trash (some of it ours), and the leachate, odor, and uncertainty that goes along with it. We have it pretty good here on the coast and I decided the least I could do was start to educate myself whenever possible about responsible waste management in Maine. I've attended meetings, argued at board meetings, read articles, studies, and proposals. I've learned enough to know that we have a long way to go, and there are no easy answers or silver bullets, but for the first time in many years, we have choices and what we decide matters.

For about two years, ever since I read that article about Hampden, I've been attending meetings of the Hampden Citizens Coalition, led by Bill Lippincott, and I volunteer to maintain their website. When I met them, they were focused on making sure that Casella properly monitored the landfill that Hampden residents had fought against for 25 years and we all assumed that it would be some other town's turn to receive the region's special waste, construction debris, and incinerator ash. It seemed like a cruel joke when the Municipal Review Committee proposed Hampden as the site for Maine's new waste-to-energy partnership with Fiberight, a company that proposes turning Maine trash into biofuels.

As a friend of Hampden, I believe these folks have served their time and I don't like the idea of sending our trash to them again, which is why I was prepared to oppose the new facility. But, as a Mainer and an environmentalist concerned about our carbon footprint, and after much research and criticism, I've come to feel hopeful about what Fiberight can accomplish. I agree with other experts in the industry that the technology stands a good chance of reducing our carbon footprint, displacing fossil fuels, and keeping a higher percentage of useful materials out of our landfills. Yes, there is a risk. As critics have pointed out, Maine will be the first to use this exact process on such a scale, but since when have we been afraid of going first? Anaerobic digestion is not new, and across Europe, the process of turning waste into biogas is a well established part of the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The alternative is business as usual, and as a Mainer (and an environmentalist) I don't like that this means a system where other states send their trash to Maine to be burned or buried.  I suspect I'm not the only Mainer who doesn't want Massachusetts sending its trash here, but few Mainers realize that this is exactly what has been happening. Some of it just gets buried in state owned or commercial landfills because companies like Casella have found creative ways of making this legal and profitable, but some of it comes here because we need it, or at least our incinerators do. For almost 30 years, a group of 187 Maine towns, represented by the Municipal Review Committee, has been locked in a contract with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Center, an incinerator that turns our trash into electricity. The problem is that we don't make enough trash for PERC to operate profitably, so they have to import about 100,000 tons a year from out of state.

Yes, it sounds awful, but this system has actually served us fairly well. Financially, it was a good choice, and from an environmental perspective, it was certainly better than the alternatives at the time, since almost everyone agrees that incinerating our trash is better than landfilling it.  

But technology has changed and so have our choices. We now have a chance to do something new and better. Our contract with PERC is expiring at the same time as some important subsidies. The incineration of our trash creates electricity that is sold at artificially high rates, keeping our waste disposal fees relatively low. The MRC, which is controlled by an elected board of volunteer directors, was the entity that negotiated and monitored the agreement with PERC on behalf of the towns. As the end of the subsides drew near, they worked hard to find a way of making PERC a sustainable option. This is a group of 9 volunteers who oversee a couple employees. They are busy people who already have demanding jobs in municipal government. It certainly would have been the easiest thing for them to simply go along with PERC, but it became clear that there were less expensive and more environmentally friendly options available, and the MRC ultimately selected Fiberight.

Here in the Mid-Coast, we are lucky to have a representative on the MRC who is both an environmentalist and a seasoned expert with a lifetime of experience in waste management and recycling. Jim Guerra, who currently serves as the facility manager at the MCSWC transfer station in Rockport, has a background in chemistry, and was a pioneer in the recycling industry long before the rest of us thought it was cool. Jim, along with other volunteer board members, has spent hundreds of hours reviewing, proposing, tweaking and presenting the best options available for our towns. They have made these decisions and recommendations in meetings which are open to the public and have been soliciting the input of experts and stakeholders since they began several years ago. Each step has been well documented and communicated on the website. Jim is the only one I know personally, but many of them have been volunteering their time, after hours and on days off, for much longer than Jim, trying to do right by the towns that elected them. They deserve our appreciation for doing a job that is more important to each of us and to our planet than we tend to acknowledge. I imagine that most people who study new proposal carefully and alongside the alternatives will agree.

Here are my top reasons for supporting the Fiberight plan, but take a look for yourself.

  1. No more importing out of state waste. To run at capacity, PERC’s 25 megawatt incineration plant needs more trash than the MRC's 187 Maine towns produce, so they import about 120,000 tons of waste (or 40% of the total) from out of state. As a Mainer and as an environmentalist, I believe we can do better than a strategy that requires us to truck trash in from Massachusetts and burn it here in Maine.
  2. Anaerobic digestion is like composting without oxygen under controlled conditions. Much of our waste stream is made up of organic material. Separate collection of food waste in a rural state like ours may come with a big carbon footprint, and some people still won't want to do it. Food scraps do not burn well in PERC's incinerators but Fiberight's process will use anaerobic digestion to turn this portion of our trash into biofuels.
  3. Displacing fossil fuels: Biogas is generally considered to be a carbon-neutral source of energy because the carbon emitted during combustion was "new" plant based carbon that was already in the atmosphere, as opposed to the combustion of fossil fuels which burns carbon that had been sequestered for millions of years, and releases it into the atmosphere. Thus, replacing fossil fuels with biogas cuts down on GHG emissions associated with energy production.
  4. Fiberight's sorting facility will add to existing recycling programs by pulling out and baling the recyclable materials that people are still throwing away. Watch a video of the process at work in the demonstration facility.

*** I am trying to get back in the habit of updating this blog about the humanitarian work I do, but I've been busy! You can follow our efforts at and be sure to check out ... I am very proud to serve on the board of directors of this incredible organization that has inspired me beyond words. For now, I needed somewhere to publish this article which deals with a considerably more local topic. Resource management, recycling, and responsible waste disposal is another topic near and dear to my heart. There will always be a connection between alieviating human suffering and managing what we reuse and throw away. Waste less, give more.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Introduction to salvaging shrink wrap for temporary shelters.

This blog entry will be completely overwhelming and way too detailed for most of you. I apologize to anyone subscribed to this blog who may not want such a detailed explanation of how to use recycled shrink wrap for refugee shelters. This is intended as an informational post for my volunteers and for others interested in replicating the project...

As many of you know, I've been following the crisis in Syria for the past several years, and thanks to an organization called NuDay Syria, I've been able to translate my feelings of horror and frustration into a few meaningful acts. For the first time in my life, there's a way to send physical items to people living through the worst humanitarian crisis we've seen in a generation. In my mind, the ability to see the horrors unfolding in real time on social media combined with the ability to actually send things that I've touched with my own hands... well, it eliminates every excuse that might justify our failure to act. It has also catalyzed a certain obsession with trying not to waste anything that might be useful to Syrians. And that's where the shrink wrap project came from. I won't go into all the details of how I got started... you can watch the videos for that, but it's enough to know that we are throwing out massive amounts of highly durable plastic every year. Plastic that does an incredible job protecting fancy yachts all throughout the harsh Maine winter. When it comes off, the vast majority of it is still in very good condition and can easily be turned into temporary shelters for people. All it takes is a quick google image search for "internally displaced tent syria" or something similar and it becomes abundantly clear how useful shrink wrap could be for people, especially those inside Syria who can't get to one of the nicer refugee camps in Jordan or elsewhere. 

I'm in my second year of the project now and I'm getting lots of great feedback and interest from people who want to help, which is great because I need a LOT of help, but I'm running out of time when it comes to explaining the process to everyone. What follows is a somewhat detailed tutorial of the process I use to sort,  fold, and prepare the recycled shrink wrap for shipment. 

For those who want a little more background on the project, you can check out these videos and links.

Video that Josh Gerritsen made about the project:

Short video that I made when I first started this which explains my rationale and basic process:

Here's a recent press release that the Dr. Shrink Company sent out to their customers, encouraging them to donate the ends of their shrink wrap rolls our to our project:

If you want to follow my efforts on Facebook, become of a fan of Maine Syria Relief .... It's basically just an extension of NuDay Syria's page for people that live in Maine. You can find NuDay Syria's official facebook page here. It is updated regularly and is a good way to follow all the amazing things that the organization is doing, but more on that later. I use my house as a drop of location for everything from shrink wrap to medical supplies, gently used clothing, food, diapers, etc... NuDay Syria has a warehouse in New Hampshire and the containers leave from there. 

OK... this is what I'm going to have people read before helping process the shrink wrap at my house, and it may be useful for others interested in expanding the collection in different areas. 

  1. Check for holes and thin spots.
  2. DRY
  3. Clean
  4. Cut off overly hardened and bulky ends
  5. Rolled as TIGHT AS POSSIBLE.

It's useful to think about where the shrink wrap comes from. Every piece will be slightly different. The bow and the stern often have overlapping parts that get shrunk and melted altogether, making it take up a lot of space in the container. Other parts, depending on the shape of the boat, might be too distorted and oddly shaped to be very useful for shelters in Syria. Each piece should be evaluated, but you can often tell by looking at the covered boat itself, whether or not the shrink wrap that comes off of it will be good quality. All 3 of the above boats look pretty ideal. 

Most of them will have this nylon strapping/rope welded into the bottom edges. This is what helped secure it to the boat. I leave all of this. The rope is extremely strong and in some cases the entire boat cover, complete with these ties in places could be used as a rain cover for an existing tent at an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Syria. Even if they decide to cut the plastic to be better suited for a certain design, they can salvage all of this super strong rope. If you look at pictures of temporary shelters online, you'll see that rope is always an important part. Try not to cut this rope any more than you have to. 

 This just shows you what the edges look like on the other side. 

This part at the end should be cut off so that it's easier to roll it up very tightly. 

 This is a zipper door. Many of the covers have them because they allow access to the boat during the winter for repairs, etc. I leave them in place. In Syria, they can always cut them out and relocate them to different places on the tent if they want. 
 These are vents that get slipped into a small cut made in the plastic. They are extremely helpful and important because they allow for ventilation. Otherwise, condensation forms on the inside of the plastic and can be a bit of a tropical greenhouse... very wet. Even if these fall out, they should be collected and sent along with the covers. 

Next comes folding/rolling. I double it over in half lengthwise, and then fold it again, and roll it up as tight as possible. The tighter you roll, the less space it takes in the container which is enormously important! Every inch that is taken up by wasted air and loosely packed plastic is an inch that can't be used for something that may save someone's life, whether that be food, medical supplies, a blanket, or more shrink wrap. 

We cannot send dirty, moldy, wet plastic on a container. It runs the risk of creating a moldy environment for the rest of the container which could be disastrous. Sometimes it's worth it to clean off the shrink wrap, but sometimes not. Don't waste a bunch of time cleaning and drying this if you have a whole pile of good clean stuff. If you just need to dry it, the best bet is usually a bunch of towels and it doesn't take as long as you might think. The picture above is an example of something that is probably not worth our time. 

Another thing you have to watch out for is shrink wrap that has these darker grey patches. Often times, these areas are paper thin due to the plastic being "over shrunk" with the blow torch heating tool. If there are a bunch of areas like this on a cover, it's not worth it to send. We want to only send plastic that will last a long time. If it has a couple holes, but the rest of the cover is really good, I repair it with donated shrink wrap tape. Amazing stuff that is used a lot by the people who put these covers on.

At the end, the rolled up plastic can be tied off with a little of the nylon strapping/rope that will inevitably be littering the area. 

These photos are just for fun. I love making test shelters trying to experiment with different prototypes and designs that might be useful for Syrians. They also work well to keep the shrink wrap dry between shipments. 

One of the many test shelters I've built..... also works well to store the shrink wrap because I have to dry it before it goes on the container ship.

scenes from last summer

Recycled shrink wrap, repackaged and on the shipping container.

Some of the pieces are REALLY big and we always lay them out, repair any holes, and dry them. Occasionally, I decide the overall quality is too low and the plastic is too thin or too distorted to bother with. I don't want to send anything to Syria that isn't useful.

The covers usually come complete with vents and often zipper doors. It's fun to make test shelters on my lawn and then I even have a place to store my shrink wrap between shipments.

Another test shelter.

This is how it often arrives.

​Shrink wrap being used as hospital walls in Northern Syria and a special thank you note they taped to the wall for me.

​Shrink wrap being turned into a shelter at a new refugee camp in Northern Syria.