George MacDonald, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s sustainability division, perceives trash differently from many people: If used right, it can be valuable. “Solid waste is not really a waste. It is a resource, and we can extract value out of that, either from recycling or composting,” he said.
It’s an idea with economic and environmental worth itself, considering that Maine is scheduled to run out of landfill space in about 12 years, based on disposal trends and available places to dump garbage.
A promising solution lies with finding ways to encourage the diverting of organic material, such as kitchen scraps and leaf and yard matter, away from the waste stream. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection estimates about 2 percent of the state’s total waste in 2011 was composted when as much as 40 percent could have been composted or processed outside of landfills.
Municipalities also can do more to encourage recycling, such as by charging per bag for trash disposal, as Bath has done, or using bins in public places to collect recyclables. A 2011 study of residential waste in 17 Maine communities revealed recyclable materials comprised about 20 percent of the trash thrown away.
Creating local composting programs or increasing acceptance of backyard composting — in addition to improving capture of recyclable paper, glass and plastics — could reduce the cost of solid waste disposal drastically. Here are some of many initiatives underway in Maine that residents and groups can emulate, build upon or utilize:
— There are nearly 150 licensed composting facilities in Maine, including some that compost fish and food wastes and others that compost sludge and septage. People may find one near them by visiting the DEP online. Towns should consider establishing composting facilities for leaf and yard waste or other organic matter if they haven’t already. Generated soil can be used within each community.
— Since the launch of the DEP’s Environmental Leader program in 2006, more than 150 lodging facilities, restaurants and grocers have been certified as green businesses for their environmentally friendly actions like recycling ink cartridges, used electronics, paper, plastic, glass, metal, cardboard and pallets; composting kitchen wastes; using only paper with at least 30 percent recycled content; collecting oil and grease for energy generation; and eliminating use of styrofoam. Is your business certified?
— Learn about Exeter Agri-Energy at Stonyvale Farm, which operates an anaerobic digestion system that turns animal and food waste into heat and electricity. The farm takes organic waste and is currently looking for business relationships with large food companies, seafood processors, restaurants, educational institutions, hospitals and solid waste trucking companies. It also sells its energy, liquid fertilizer, renewable energy certificates and clean animal bedding.
— Ecomaine is a nonprofit waste management company owned and operated by 21 municipalities in southern Maine. In addition to running a waste-to-energy plant, recycling center and landfill site, it has a number of good resources on its website. People can see their town’s recycling rate compared to other towns; nonprofits can pick up free collection receptacles for recyclables; and people can register to stop junk mail or phone books from being delivered to their house or business. Also in Portland, Garbage to Garden offers curbside compost pickup.
— The University of Maine, University of Maine at Farmington and the College of the Atlantic have joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge in 2013 and have pledged to reduce the amount of food waste going into disposal on their campuses. At some public K-12 schools, composting happens on site, and the soil is added to the schools’ gardens. In other areas, local farmers will take schools’ food discards to compost. Do you know what your school does, and are you involved?