A handful of changes in the works for Maine’s solid waste landscape could greatly expand the state’s landfill capacity and change what becomes of a significant portion of waste once it leaves the curbside.
We think the state has a chance to make a significant dent in the amount of trash that ultimately finds its way to a landfill. That’s why there’s more the state should do right now to ensure Maine’s solid waste picture changes for the better.
The state Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee will meet Tuesday to decide on its next steps on legislation in the works that could make a number of solid waste-related policy changes.
As the committee decides its next steps, the operator of the state’s largest landfill — Juniper Ridge in Old Town — is seeking Department of Environmental Protection approval to more than triple its capacity. A group representing more than 180 Maine towns and cities is seeking approval to build a new waste processing facility in Hampden. And the waste-to-energy facility those 180 towns currently use, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Corp. facility in Orrington, will fight to keep much of its existing business (i.e. trash to continue incinerating into electricity and landfill ash).
What lawmakers should aim to do is ensure that any solid waste changes work toward the same goal — minimizing the amount of waste that finds its way into landfills.
Maine law already has some components that can help the state accomplish that goal. One law makes it the state’s goal to continue shrinking the waste stream by 5 percent every two years. Another sets a goal for the state to recycle at least half its waste. A third law requires that the Department of Environmental Protection ensure any new waste facility — be it a new or expanded landfill or a processing plant that converts trash into fuel or electricity — follows the principles of the state’s waste management hierarchy, which emphasizes waste reduction, recycling, composting, incineration and other measures before landfilling.
To be sure, the state and individual Maine communities are making progress on the waste reduction front. The amount of solid waste that ended up at an incinerator or landfill dropped 9.8 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to the Maine DEP. And Maine produces less trash per capita than any other New England state. In 2014, when the DEP took steps to reject a proposal for a new landfill in the Argyle and Greenbush area in Penobscot County, the agency said the landfill proposal was inconsistent with the state’s waste management hierarchy.
But there are other fronts on which progress is sorely needed.
Maine’s recycling rate has barely budged in two decades. The DEP calculated Maine’s recycling rate for 2013 to be 41 percent, scarcely changed from 1997, when the rate was 42 percent. And much of Maine’s solid waste doesn’t need to end up as trash: A 2011 University of Maine analysis showed that 60 percent of household waste could be either composted (40 percent) or recycled (20 percent), meaning much of Maine’s waste that ends up incinerated or in a landfill doesn’t have to end up there.
Lawmakers on Tuesday will consider at least two measures that could make a difference. A bill they’re considering would require that commercial food waste be composted, emulating a similar measure that took effect in Massachusetts last year. The legislation also would set up a grant and loan fund to pay for initiatives that boost composting and recycling. The right funding source? Finally ending the state’s policy of allowing towns and cities to send their waste straight to a landfill for free.
“We’re not following through on incentivizing the behavior that we want,” said Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson, an Environment and Natural Resources Committee member.
Now, though, policymakers have a chance to ensure Maine’s solid waste laws actually help the state follow through on its waste reduction goals.