Let it rot

Trash is messy business. Expensive, too. We pay for stuff and then we pay to throw it away. Taxpayers foot the bill with some municipalities recouping all or part of the cost by charging residents for trash stickers or bags.

Shrinking markets for recyclables have caused many towns to reduce the materials they accept or eliminate recycling programs altogether. Ellsworth, for example, takes only the following clean recyclables: corrugated cardboard, newspapers and magazines, number 1 and 2 plastics and tin/aluminum cans. No office paper, cereal boxes or glass, please.

Most Hancock County trash is bound for the landfill or Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) in Orrington, where refuse is burned for energy. The Coastal Resources of Maine plant in Hampden was supposed to be a novel alternative for communities in the nonprofit Municipal Review Committee, which includes Bar Harbor, Blue Hill, Bucksport, Dedham and 111 other municipalities. But that $90-million experiment is still on ice as bondholders try to lock in a buyer with the credentials — and the credit line — needed to get the plant up and running again. If a fairy godmother is coming, she’s taking her time.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of what Mainers and all Americans throw away is food. About 30-40 percent of the food supply in the country is wasted, according to the USDA. An estimated 63 million tons of food waste was generated in the commercial, institutional and residential sectors in 2018, representing more than one-fifth of total municipal solid waste. Diverting much of that is critical to feeding the hungry and using our natural resources judiciously. It takes a lot of water to grow those veggies wilting in the crisper.

But some waste is inevitable and for that there’s a solution that can work on a large or small scale: composting.
In a landfill and starved of oxygen, organic waste cannot break down properly and releases methane gas. But throw those leftovers in a pile in the backyard with some leaves and you have the recipe for a gardener’s secret weapon. Composting turns trash into something of value.

In Ellsworth, trash stickers are $3 apiece for a 50-pound bag. If a household produces two bags a week, that’s $312 in trash stickers per year. If composting reduced that household waste by 20 percent, that would be $62 in annual savings.

Compost also presents a business opportunity. Locally, Chickadee Composting has swap sheds at its Surry headquarters and at the Blue Hill Co-op. Subscribers bring buckets of food scraps and swap them for clean containers. The company does the dirty work. Both Chickadee Composting and DM&J Waste of Ellsworth were recipients of Maine Department of Environmental Protection 2020 Waste Diversion grant awards.

In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste. Of that, 25 million tons were composted (mostly yard trimmings). Only about 4.1 percent of food trash was composted. We can increase that number by handling food and other organic waste as nature intended. Let it rot – then put it back to work.


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