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.