When you chuck your spoiled leftovers or your empty Gifford’s cardboard ice cream container into the trash bin, you are essentially letting reusable material with potential value go to waste. Literally. Despite marketing efforts, educational pushes in schools, goal-setting laws, municipal programs and urgent pleading from environmentalists, Maine still recycles or composts less than 40 percent of its waste. The rate hasn’t really budged for more than a decade.
What if towns and cities reused all their recyclable and compostable materials? It may sound like a far-fetched goal compared with where Maine is now, but it’s the exact idea behind one proposal. The nonprofit Municipal Review Committee, which represents 187 communities from Winthrop and Boothbay in the south to Mars Hill in the north, doesn’t want single-sort or zero-sort recycling. It wants no-sort recycling.
That means you wouldn’t have to hunt around for the little number and recycling symbol on the bottom of your plastic containers to figure out if you can recycle or toss them. They would all go in the trash. Same with your cat cans and magazines. Then the trash would get sorted at a special facility where cardboard, newsprint, metals and glass would be filtered out, and organic materials would be put through an anaerobic digestion process to create biogas for use as fuel.
Places around the world have figured out how to boost recycling, and Maine should join them. The Municipal Review Committee has a perfect opportunity with the expiration in 2018 of its contract to send communities’ solid waste 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 cost to towns to dispose of their waste is set to double in 2018, as a favorable power-purchase agreement with Emera is also ending then.
The incinerator has sometimes acted as a disincentive for towns to reduce, reuse and recycle. Some have faced fees for not sending in their guaranteed annual tonnage of waste — essentially a slap on the wrist for being more environmentally conscious (and having declining populations). There are certainly financial, practical and ecological incentives to change the system that controls how municipalities process their trash.
One of the biggest hurdles in starting a new waste management system will be the siting and permitting of a landfill. Currently combustion ash and residual materials generated by PERC end up in the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. The landfill, however, is expected to reach full capacity in several years. And even though a new facility will reduce the need for a landfill by relying more on recycling, it will not eliminate the need for a landfill. The Municipal Review Committee is considering constructing one in either Greenbush or Argyle, both in Penobscot County. It submitted an application for a public benefit determination by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection last week.
The project is just beginning, but the direction in which it’s heading is promising. It would be unfortunate for some residents to immediately say no to a landfill in their town without first considering what would make it worth their while. They can request benefits.
Will the selected municipality need a better place to store sand and salt? The space for it could be dedicated on the same property as the landfill. Will there be a need for new firefighting equipment, police protection or road maintenance? It’s possible for the project to underwrite those costs. Or perhaps residents want direct property tax relief, free trash disposal or to have oversight of the project on the organization’s board of directors. Those are possibilities, too.
The end of the PERC contracts is an opportunity to improve the way much of the state deals with its solid waste. It’s normal for people to be worried about how changes will affect their community, but that concern doesn’t need to translate into immediate full-throated opposition. Instead, residents should start with an open mind and suggestions for how to make their trash work for them.