‘We’re a throwaway society’: Reining in Maine’s waste-management costs depends on consumers, experts say

Posted June 26, 2014, at 2:29 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A quarter century after committing to compost or recycle half the waste produced in the state, Maine remains far short of that goal.

In 1989, the Maine Legislature enacted a policy establishing a goal to recycle or compost 50 percent of the state’s municipal solid waste annually. This goal was supposed to be met in 2012 and when it was not, the target date was extended to Jan. 1, 2014. Right now the recycling and compost rate is at 39.6 percent, according to the 2014 Maine Materials Management Plan.

Government and waste-management officials gathered Thursday in the University of Southern Maine’s Wishcamper Center to discuss how the state could meet that goal during a forum hosted by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine.

“I think we’re at a real changing time,” said Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, House chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. “I think people are much more aware of the challenges we face in solid waste and people are much more invested in trying to find some solutions.”

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Discussion centered on Maine’s solid waste management hierarchy, which guides waste management tactics in a way that keeps the environment and sustainability as most important factors to consider.

“It’s a great public awareness tool,” said Mark Draper, the solid waste director at Tri-Community Recycling and Sanitary Landfill in the Aroostook County region. “It’s a continuous effort from us to educate the public in terms of what we’re doing.”

The hierarchy lists reducing the amount of waste produced, reusing or prolonging the life of items, recycling and composting as top waste management priorities, followed by waste-to-energy plants and landfills.

Draper expressed his belief that too much discussion at both state and local levels has been focused on waste-to-energy plants and landfill policies instead of focusing on recycling and waste reduction education.

“Most people take their trash out on trash day to the curb, whatever that may be, the trash truck comes around, whether it’s public or privately owned, it picks up the trash, it goes away and we’re all happy,” said Draper. “Folks don’t even know where it goes. They’re just happy it’s gone.”

Kevin Roche, the general manager and CEO of the non-profit waste management company ecomaine, agreed and outlined how his company worked to educate the public. He said ecomaine reached out to 6,000 of its members last year and that 2,000 were given a tour of their facilities.

“We feel like if you tour the facilities, you’re going to go out and be a messenger of that information and word is going to begin to spread. Education is so important.”

He said ecomaine recently hosted a luncheon for 100 people and showed them how to do the same while producing no waste at all.

“You need to be liked. If the community hates you, you’re not going to go very far. And what we have found is that our communities like us because they trust us,” said Roche. “We’ve invited them in and shown them everything. We’re completely transparent.”

Welsh outlined a bill, LD-1483, that proposed adding landfill fees to seed a fund that would help support waste-to-energy plants. The proposal met a lot of resistance from rural municipalities that would’ve had trouble finding the extra funds in their budgets to avoid using landfills, Welsh said.

“It’s more expensive to do all of the above [in the hierarchy] … we had a huge outcry for municipalities,” said Welsh.

“Maine’s a pretty diverse state. There’s a huge difference in the opportunities and challenges you have in York and Cumberland counties in comparison to what you may face in Washington or Aroostook,” said Draper, who said a one-size-fits-all mandate for statewide waste management would not work. “What works in one area may not be feasible for another. Ultimately what they’re looking for is the least costly option.”

When it comes to waste management, municipalities have to sacrifice the more environmentally-friendly options because of stressed budgets that need to go toward their infrastructure and education budgets, Draper said.

Facilities at ecomaine include a recycling center, a waste-to-energy plant and a landfill. That diversity is the key to ecomaine’s success, Roche said, as they can send waste materials to the most ideal location. He compared waste management in the state to a tug-of-war between those trying to reuse materials, recyclers, composters, waste-to-energy facilities and landfills.

“When you bring waste in your direction, it usually has some sort of economic benefit. This is where the industry needs to be in check,” said Roche. “We need intervention. It’s not only needed, it’s necessary to make sure that waste materials end up where they belong.”

Intervention, he said, should be through public education and a region-based plan that supports a statewide goal. Roche admitted that the state needs landfills and will likely always need landfills, but that they are not a solution.

“We’re a throw-away society and I think around the country people are beginning to see that we can’t continue the same habits that we have previously had,” said Welsh. “We’re really trying to change the culture to a society that’s much more conscious of the consequences of storing garbage well into the future for the generations to deal with later.”

 

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