How not to handle waste disposal

Landfill, waste-to-energy, compost, recycle, reuse, reduce. Sounds like an Earth Day mantra. But, in fact, those terms represent the state of Maine’s hierarchy criteria for managing the hundreds of thousands of tons of trash that we all generate each year.

For many citizens of a certain age, these criteria were bred into us by Depression-era parents used to reusing or recycling virtually every can, bottle and newspaper. The campaign has continued to the modern age. We’ve all been encouraged to recycle paper, cardboard, glass and plastic.

Trash handling is big business. And, as we are all learning, recycling is complicated and expensive and does not always bring about the intended results. Shifting market demands, increasing costs for certain products and other economic factors have created scenarios where some of our recycled materials are still landfilled despite regulatory efforts and emphasis to the contrary.

This is most evident as dozens of Maine towns (up to 187) are faced with an unexpected conundrum. For years, members of the Municipal Review Committee (MRC) trucked their non-recycled trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) in Orrington to be burned in its trash-to-electricity facility. Two years ago, a new energy concept proposed by a new firm, Fiberight, envisioned a Hampden plant to recycle trash. MRC embraced Fiberight’s plan and a majority of member towns decided to leave PERC and move to Fiberight effective April 1 this year.

Unfortunately, Fiberight was not ready for business April 1 — and may not be ready for trash until much later this year. The MRC had a plan: Until the Hampden plant was up and running, MRC member towns could continue to take their garbage to the PERC plant. At the same time, arrangements were made to send MRC member towns’ trash to a landfill — the disposal method that ranks lowest on the state’s trash handling hierarchy, according to an edict dating to 1989. “Landfilling” (sorry, folks, it has become a verb) also is a more expensive option, an option that most MRC member towns were decidedly against.

Waste Management Corp., operator of the Norridgewock landfill that has contractually optioned to accept the Fiberight-committed trash, has the commitment and wants the extra business. In fact, the Waste Management Corp. insists on being the sole recipient of MRC trash, despite the intentions of the MRC towns, or the DEP guidelines for handling municipal waste. Goodbye, PERC.

As a result, PERC has lost much of the trash that helps it meet its trash-to-energy contracts with the state, forcing the layoffs of 16 employees. And towns are sending truckloads of trash past the Orrington plant to Norridgewock to be buried, at more expense, time and mileage and in contrast to the initiatives of reduce, reuse and recycle. In other words, environmentally responsible waste disposal.

While the Fiberight trash-to-energy plan may be, in the long run, the better concept, the initial impact of the delayed opening not what MRC member towns bargained for. Several local towns have already balked at this landfilling arrangement — Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Sedgwick and Surry and will transfer their trash back to PERC, despite the MRC’s promises of legal action or penalties if they do so.

Maine towns should be against spending extra money for unnecessarily landfilling trash as other expenses increase. Taxpayers should be deeply critical of this far from ideal disposal alternative that contradicts their best efforts to comply with responsible trash-handling guidelines.

MRC, Fiberight and Waste Management need to be negotiating common-sense options with PERC to lower members’ waste costs during this critical interval in Fiberight’s start-up. To threaten penalties against member towns for trying to do the right thing with their trash undermines the intent of their new pact and brings into question what will occur if Fiberight fails to become operational by September — the latest predicted start date. And what if Fiberight has future operational issues in this unique process? The company may have developed a better mousetrap, but even the best mousetraps have off days. Stubborn adherence to contracts that subvert the hierarchy of trash disposal will produce a smell around eastern Maine that will be hard to forget.

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