ELLSWORTH — It may be a year behind schedule, but recycling at the Fiberight facility in Hampden could happen “any day,” a company spokeswoman said Monday.
“I’m literally waiting on a phone call,” said Shelby Wright, who is Fiberight’s director of community services. “It could be tomorrow, it could be today. Most likely it’s looking like at some point this week.”
The $70-million facility will be accepting trash by April, Wright said. By the end of June, trash and recycling from all communities that have signed contracts with Fiberight will be arriving at the plant for conversion into fuel pellets, biogas and bales of recyclables.
In interviews, Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul often refers to the technology behind Fiberight as “the next generation of recycling.”
Wright illustrates it with an example.
You’re making dinner and you drop a jar of tomato sauce on the floor.
“You sweep it up and put it in the trash. Our process will actually deconstruct that,” Wright said.
Machines will remove the paper label and wash out the spaghetti sauce. The paper will be sorted out for recycling. The sauce will be turned into biogas and sent to pipelines owned by Bangor Gas. The jar will be made into clean aggregate that can be used for fill.
It’s a complicated process involving a succession of screens, chutes and drums, but here’s the gist:
First, machines will shred and empty the bag of trash, loading it onto a conveyor belt. Next, using a rotating cylindrical drum made of different size screens called a trommel, the contents of the bag will be separated by size. Dry textiles will be removed. Bulky items (toasters, kettles) will be separated out for recycling or disposal.
The spaghetti sauce jar and the rest of the items will then be sent to a drum pulper, where the process of separating sauce and paper from jar begins. The pulper breaks organic waste into smaller and smaller bits, which will make it easier to eventually separate sauce and other food waste from recyclables.
Material that’s been passed through the pulper will be washed to isolate food waste from fiber and mixed unrecyclable material (mostly plastic). Those materials can now be used to make biogas, sugars to be turned into biofuel and other biochemical products.
“You’ll take that broken glass with spaghetti sauce on it and you’ll turn into three valued-added products,” Wright said.
Around 20 percent of the material that comes into the Fiberight facility will be sent to a landfill in Norridgewock, Wright said.
The plant will not deal solely in trash, Wright said. Four communities — Bar Harbor, Hampden, Levant and Castine — also have signed contracts to dispose of single-stream (unsorted) recycling at the facility, with another six in talks to potentially do so.
Recycling at Fiberight will work in much the same way as a traditional facility. But there’s an additional benefit to the plant’s sorting process, said Wright, which is that it can recover recyclables that have been unintentionally trashed.
Recyclables for which there’s a market (plastics numbered 1 and 2, some cardboard, paper, some metals) will be cleaned, crushed, baled and sold to third parties, where they will eventually be used to make items such as carpets, fleece, truck bed liners, picnic tables and life jacket stuffing.
“That’ll be market-dependent just like any other,” Wright said.
Wright said the technology doesn’t mean consumers are freed from the responsibility to clean their tomato sauce jars and rinse their shampoo bottles.
“The cleaner that you put things in the single-stream recycling, the cleaner that material is going to be and the more value that’s going to have on the market,” Wright said.
“We want to encourage everyone to keep their single-stream as clean as possible.”
The Hampden plant’s construction has been dogged by delays and frustrations that have caused ripple effects throughout the region. More than 20 of the Municipal Review Committee’s (MRC) 115 member towns have been forced to send their waste to a landfill in the interim. The construction also has coincided with a sharp downturn in the market for recyclables that led many communities to cancel or cut back their recycling programs.
This also will be the first commercial-scale application of Fiberight technology. Although the two main aspects of the process — mechanical biological treatment (MBT) and biofuel production — are widely in use throughout Europe and China, Fiberight will be one of the few in the world to use the two methods in conjunction.
It’s relatively untested, but the concept of using the two methods together “appears to be feasible,” wrote engineering consultants for the town of Waterboro in 2016. Whether or not is financially viable, the consultants wrote, remains to be seen. (The plant was financed with a $45 million tax-exempt bond issuance from the Finance Authority of Maine and an additional $25 million in private equity.)
Of course, said Cynthia Isenhour, a professor of climate science and anthropology at the University of Maine, the best way to prevent waste from ending up in a landfill or energy-intensive recycling process is to not create it in the first place.
“If we’re looking at the status quo (producing a lot of single use packaging — bottles, cans, films, glass — and throwing most of it in a landfill or incinerator), then yes, lifecycle analyses suggest that we should be recycling,” said Isenhour in an email. But, she noted, “The most important thing we can do for the climate is focus on reduction and reuse.”
Isenhour continued: “While we’re recycling a lot, the material and energetic gains are cannibalized by growth in production and consumption of new materials.”