ELLSWORTH — Is my town still recycling? Where is it going? If I put this milk jug in the recycling bin, will it really get recycled?
In recent years, the answers to those questions have become less clear. New technologies have come online and communities are attempting to respond to fluctuating markets. So what’s the state of recycling in Hancock County?
Most communities have opted to send recyclables to Fiberight, the recently opened Coastal Resources facility in Hampden.
Others have found alternatives, including shipping marketable recyclables to ecomaine in Portland or selling them via the Maine Resource Recovery Association.
And some have either canceled recycling programs or are sending waste (recycling and trash) to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) plant in Orrington, where it’s burned to generate electricity.
Towns sending recycling to Fiberight include Amherst, Aurora, Bar Harbor, Bucksport, Cranberry Isles, Dedham, Eastbrook, Franklin, Great Pond, Osborn, Otis, Sorrento and Waltham.
A number of other towns, including those that were once sending recycling to Ellsworth, are slated to send recycling (combined with trash) to Fiberight this year. That group includes Frenchboro, Mount Desert, Tremont and Trenton, which previously sent recyclables to Ellsworth as members of the Acadia Disposal District.
Heading off the island and over to Blue Hill, single-sorted recycling from towns that contribute to the Blue Hill/Surry Transfer Station (Blue Hill and Surry, of course, along with along with Brooklin, Brooksville and Sedgwick), is brought to the PERC facility in Orrington, where it’s burned to generate electricity.
“Our single-sort actually goes to PERC, and it has been for over a year, because Fiberight was not in operation up until quite recently,” said Blue Hill Selectman Vaughn Leach.
“We had been sending it down to ecomaine down in southern Maine,” Leach said. “But when the Chinese stopped taking our recyclables the cost to ship it down there became prohibitive. We figured [we would send it to PERC] rather than landfill it, which would have really been the only other choice, because nobody can market all those recyclables.”
The Blue Hill area towns are paying $71.35 per ton to send recycling to PERC, said Leach, after a $5-per-ton rebate. That’s roughly double the cost of sending sorted recycling to Fiberight, which is charging roughly $35 per ton of sorted recyclables and $71.44 per ton of waste (sorted recycling costs less because it requires less processing once it arrives at the plant).
Fiberight’s machinery does have the ability to separate recyclables from waste at the plant, taking out materials that the company can process and resell, such as corrugated cardboard.
At the moment, Fiberight is diverting roughly half of the material that gets delivered there. That means that roughly 50 percent is being landfilled while the other 50 percent is either recovered for recycling (plastics numbered 1 and 2, some cardboard, paper, some metals) and sold to third parties or converted into biofuel.
The goal is to get to between 70 and 80 percent of material diverted in the future, said Shelby Wright, the company’s director of community services.
The Blue Hill area towns are considering sending recycling to Fiberight in the future, said Leach, a decision that is “wrapped up in the budgeting process,” which is ongoing.
Nearby Orland is no longer asking residents to separate household recycling but is sending its waste in a single stream to PERC, said Transfer Station Operator Gary Newbegin. That approach, he argued, is better than having the recyclables landfilled.
Some metals and demolition debris are sent to DM&J Waste in Winterport, and the town is hoping to one day find a buyer for paper products such as cardboard and mixed paper.
“There used to be a market,” said Newbegin. “People wanted to buy it.” No longer.
Heading east, Ellsworth is still recycling through the Maine Resource Recovery Association network, which is very market-dependent, said Public Works Director Lisa Sekulich.
“It’s a fluctuating market. What we get paid today for something may not be what we get paid tomorrow,” Sekulich said.
“We don’t actually know where the end users are,” she said. “They tell us when they’re going to have a truck in the area and they’ll pick it up and they’ll take it to Pennsylvania or New York or wherever they have a buyer.”
Fees vary depending on what’s being picked up, Sekulich said.
Lamoine is the county’s outlier, opting (despite market fluctuations) to begin sending single-sort recyclables to ecomaine, in Portland, last year.
“DM&J picks up the bins and takes them to Winterport, where they are weighed and combined with other single sort bins for the trip south,” said Administrative Assistant Stu Marckoon in an email. “It costs a lot of money!”
But for some towns, the cost of recycling is simply not in the budget. In the past two years, Gouldsboro, Winter Harbor, Hancock and Steuben have scrapped their recycling programs altogether, opting to go for a single stream of waste. Some of that waste is sent to PERC and burned for energy. Several of those towns had been recycling via Coastal Recycling in Hancock, which closed this past spring after more than 25 years in business.
Local officials around the county agree on one thing: they are trying hard not to create more confusion, which they worry could lead residents to throw their hands up and stop recycling altogether.
“We’ve been hesitant to make a bunch of moves. We’re trying to figure out exactly what we want to do,” said Blue Hill’s Vaughn Leach. “We figure that will confuse the population less.”
Ellsworth American reporter Johanna S. Billings contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the location of ecomaine. It is in Portland.