ORRINGTON, Maine — What if the banana peels, coffee filters, diapers and other biodegradable material we throw into the kitchen trash can could be used to fill a gas can?
Or made into pellets that could be sold as heating fuel?
Mainers have pulled newspapers, glass, cardboard and No. 2 plastics out of their trash for years, but the recycling rate remains stuck at about 40 percent. How much material would be eliminated from the waste stream and reused if that percentage were to rise? How much money could Maine towns save if more of the trash they produced could be sold as commodities or turned into marketable energy?
The Municipal Review Committee Inc., a nonprofit organization formed in 1991 to address the trash disposal interests of a group of communities that now total 187, is working to answer those questions. The Municipal Review Committee says it has a plan to increase recycling and offset the costs of trash disposal by selling recyclables in bulk and making fuel from the biodegradable items collected. If successful, the plan would eliminate the expense of dumping trash at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company waste-to-energy plant in Orrington, a cost expected to double in 2018, and would reduce what is placed in landfills.
Greg Lounder, Municipal Review Committee executive director, explained that an above market contract between PERC and Emera Maine is about to expire in 2018. The plant is getting about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour for the electricity it makes by burning trash, under the contract, but after 2018, “that agreement goes away, and the electricity must be sold on the open market,” Lounder said. “The [market] price right now is 4 cents a kilowatt-hour.”
The Municipal Review Committee, which is part owner of PERC, started looking for alternatives five years ago, and through a ton of research, it came up with the plan for the integrated solid waste and recycling facility.
In short, the Municipal Review Committee wants to get into the trash business. It is exploring the idea of financing a zero-sort recycling and trash-fed fuel processing and engineered fuels facility that would make ethanol or biogas from the food and dirty food containers that people throw away.
Most of what is thrown into a household trash can can be recycled, and the remaining biodegradable waste, with recent advances in enzyme technology, can be made into ethanol, compressed natural gas or, by another process, engineered fuel such as fibrous pellets, according to the Municipal Review Committee.
The key is getting the waste separated, especially discarded food products and other organic material.
“The material has been notoriously hard to recycle,” Lounder said of biowaste.
Organic biowaste — food, food-soiled containers, diapers, leaves, grass and plant trimmings — makes up about 43 percent of what Mainers throw away, with paper accounting for 25 percent; plastics making up 13 percent; metals coming in at 3 percent and glass accounting for nearly 3 percent.
“If everything went through a processing line everything would be recycled,” George Aronson, senior technical advisor to the group and Municipal Review Committee oversight committee member, said recently.
After the biodegradable waste is segregated, it’s “washed thoroughly in an autoclave. From there, they take the materials and pulp it … and then, take the pulp slurry and put it into a distilling process, and ethanol is derived out of that,” Lounder said.
Any leftover fibrous materials that remain from the ethanol-making process can be made into pellets and sold for heating fuel. Municipal Review Committee members went to Toronto to research a potential vendor for this part of the three-prong process.
“Low value solid materials that you can make a fuel product from — that gives you a whole new level of revenue,” Aronson said, calling the biowaste that is landfilled an untapped revenue stream.
The State of Maine is on record as supporting the concept, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s 2014 State Waste Management and Recycling Plan presented to Legislators in January.
“Diversion of organics from disposal remains the largest opportunity to reduce Maine’s waste stream,” the report states. “Recent developments in conversion technologies that process organic wastes to create fuels are creating new opportunities to significantly increase the diversion of additional solid wastes from disposal in Maine.”
The technology the Municipal Review Committee needs to make its plan work is already up and running in another part of the country.
Municipal Review Committee members visited an integrated demonstration plant in Lawrenceville, Virginia, run by Maryland-based Fiberight LLC, that turns municipal solid waste into ethanol, biogas or compressed natural gas through a distillation process. In January, the Municipal Review Committee board “passed a resolution directing the [Municipal Review Committee] staff to work with one particular technology vendor, Fiberight, to investigate the technical and economic feasibility of developing a facility utilizing its technology to serve the [Municipal Review Committee] municipalities.”
Craig Stuart-Paul, chief executive of Fiberight, and former owner of Oxford Brewing Company, Maryland’s first micro-brewery, calls the ethanol-fuel Trashanol, and he’s trademarked the name.
“There are a lot of resources in trash that have been either burned or buried,” Stuart-Paul said recently. He said that he came to realize, based on his brewing background, that there must be a better way.
“Being a brewer, I knew when you get sugars, you get booze and that is literally the ‘Ah ha’ moment,” he said by phone. “I knew if we could get sugars from the natural waste, we could distill them and create an alternative fuel.”
The plant in Virginia that was visited by Municipal Review Committee members uses unseparated trash, and the Municipal Review Committee’s plan starts with recycling out everything of value before the remainder is processed into fuel, which is one reason why Fiberight is just one of many vendors that are under consideration.
“They’re a very interesting vendor, but they’re one of a number of vendors [the Municipal Review Committee is considering],” Aronson said. “We have to decide if the revenue is enough to pay for the capital investment and keep the tipping fees down.”
No cost estimates for the approximately 80,000-square-foot processing facility and associated landfill have been provided by the Municipal Review Committee. Aronson said there will be a considerable investment, but the overall goal is to keep disposal costs at about what they are now for Municipal Review Committee members.
The group has already taken heat for the project in the communities of Argyle and Greenbush, where sites have been identified for the processing facility and associated landfill.
Years ago, most communities had a town dump, but a state law passed to reduce the number of landfills to cut down on pollution has dropped the numbers to two state-owned, five municipal, two “ash” and one remaining commercial landfill.
All future landfills must get state approval, which means if the Municipal Review Committee project is to go forward, it must first get Department of Environmental Protection approval. The group applied for a public benefit determination in April, which is pending.
“Our vision includes a system premised on self-reliance derived from appropriate ownership and control,” the application states. “Our vision includes an economical system that does not rely on substantial, ongoing subsidies from the state or otherwise. Our vision includes facility components that can adapt over time to changes in waste generation and composition, and to changes in the markets for products derived from processed MSW. Finally, our vision sees change as an opportunity to improve our system.”
A Maine Department of Environmental Protection public hearing on the Municipal Review Committee application to take comments on the proposal is scheduled for July 2 at the Old Town Elks Lodge, 37 Fourth St. in Old Town. The public meeting is 2-5 p.m. and 6:30-9 p.m.