March 24, 2018
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From dumps to wattage: Maine’s changing waste landscape

Bridget Brown | BDN
Bridget Brown | BDN
A trash truck driver prepares to dump his load of municipal solid waste at Penobscot Energy Recovery Company in Orrington in 2009.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff

A confluence of forces having to do with contracts, electricity prices and landfill space — all coming to a head in 2018 — are at play in the effort by a group representing 187 Maine towns and cities to devise an entirely new scheme for disposing municipal solid waste.

This week, the Municipal Review Committee — which represents municipalities from the Waterville area in the south to Aroostook County in the north — submitted an application to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection seeking approval for a new landfill facility in the Penobscot County communities of Greenbush or Argyle.

But the landfill is only part of the proposal — the spot where the remaining waste that can’t be recycled or processed into a fuel would end up.

The communities send their solid waste that isn’t recycled to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. facility in Orrington, which incinerates the waste to generate electricity that’s sold to the utility Emera Maine. The remaining ash goes to Juniper Ridge landfill, one of two landfills owned by the state.

In 2018, the 187 towns’ agreement to send their solid waste to the Orrington waste-to-energy facility expires. It will have been 30 years since the facility opened and started accepting municipal waste.

Also in 2018, the other part of the equation that sustains Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. also expires. That’s a power-purchase agreement with Emera Maine that currently guarantees the facility an above-market price for the power it produces.

Meanwhile, the Juniper Ridge landfill on which the other part of the municipalities’ trash equation depends will be approaching full capacity. In 2011, the state’s annual waste generation and disposal capacity report estimated the Old Town facility had 8.5 years of capacity remaining.

The solution that municipal officials are eyeing is one they say would maximize recycling, boost beneficial reuse of waste and minimize the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill — while charging towns largely the same rates they’re currently paying to dispose of their trash.

What we waste

Maine residents generated 1.77 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2011, according to the state’s waste generation and disposal capacity report. Some 39.6 percent of this waste was either recycled or composted.

State law set a goal that Maine would recycle or compost half of its waste by the start of 2014, but the state’s recycling rates have barely budged over the past decade. The recycling rate bottomed out at 34.8 percent in 2007. By 2009, it had risen to 38.8 percent.

Meanwhile, the 2011 state waste report notes Maine will need 22.8 million cubic yards of landfill capacity over the next 20 years at current fill rates, while it had 15.3 million cubic yards of licensed landfill capacity available.

A 2011 University of Maine study that sampled Maine’s municipal solid waste found that more than a quarter of it — 27.8 percent — was food waste. Paper waste made up another quarter of the study sample; the paper portion had actually decreased from 33 percent in a sample of Maine’s solid waste taken 20 years earlier.

Plastics made up 13.44 percent of the waste sampled, construction and demolition debris represented 3.35 percent, metal was 3.26 percent, glass was 2.71 percent and electronics was 0.76 percent.

Nationwide, in 2012, the average person generated 4.38 pounds of waste per day, which was 63.4 percent more waste than the average person generated in 1960, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While Americans generated substantially more waste in 2012 than they did 52 years earlier, they also recycled substantially more: The recycling rate was 6.4 percent in 1960, compared with 34.5 percent in 2012.

Waste into wattage

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 11.7 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste was incinerated in 2012 in order to produce electricity. In Maine, about a third of its municipal solid waste has traditionally been delivered to waste-to-energy facilities such as Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.; the state’s solid waste management hierarchy written into law emphasizes converting waste into energy before it reaches the landfill. Maine sends about a quarter of its waste directly to a landfill, compared with more than half nationally.

In 2011, Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. incinerated nearly 189,000 tons of municipal solid waste, more than the Maine’s other three waste-to-energy facilities that were operating at the time. The four facilities incinerated more than 518,000 tons of garbage total in a process that reduces the weight by as much as two-thirds.

Since 2011, one of Maine’s four waste-to-energy facilities has closed, the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Biddeford.

Across the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 86 waste-to-energy plants — and the plants frequently run into stiff opposition that keeps new plants from opening or forces existing facilities to close. Meanwhile, waste-to-energy disposal is much more common in Europe. Sweden, for example, processes nearly half of its waste into energy and recycles the other half. Germany processes 38 percent of its waste into energy and recycles 62 percent.

With one waste-to-energy incinerator recently closed and the future of Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in question, Maine likely isn’t headed in the same direction. The dynamics have also changed for the state’s remaining waste-to-energy facilities. The power purchase agreement that guaranteed the Mid-Maine Waste Action Corporation’s incinerator in Auburn a favorable rate for its electricity recently expired, for example, changing the revenue equation for that facility.

Under the Municipal Review Committee’s proposal, the participating towns and cities would shift to making recycling and trash disposal one and the same for residents, while switching from a waste-to-energy approach to one that creates a marketable ethanol fuel.

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.

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