June 19, 2018
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Burning, burying less trash in Maine important but tricky

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.

Maine has made great strides away from the environmentally shameful practice of burying solid waste. Many of the state’s landfills have closed, recycling programs have been established and as consumers, Mainers are more aware of the impact and true costs of their choices.

But the plateau reached more than a decade ago is not a place to stop. Yet finding the new path toward better trash-management policies is less clear.

Some of the municipalities that did not initially adopt a per-bag fee system, in which residents had to pay between $1 and $2.50 for each 33-gallon bag of trash, have begun doing so or are considering doing so. This method assigns costs to the trash-producer, removing them from the property tax base. It also acts as an incentive to recycle: The more a household recycles, the less trash it produces and so the less it costs to get rid of it.

Another step taken in recent years is the introduction of single-stream recycling. Recycling programs typically require consumers to sort clear glass from brown and green, newspapers from office paper, fiberboard from corrugated cardboard and No. 2 plastic from aluminum cans. Single-stream is a bit of a capitulation in that it acknowledges that some people don’t take the time to sort recyclables; instead, they are able to toss all the materials into one bin and it is mechanically or manually sorted later.

Single-stream recycling increases the volume of materials being diverted from landfills or incinerators. The city of Bath has cut the volume of its solid waste by about 60 percent over the last five years by instituting bag fees and single-stream recycling.

Admittedly, incinerators, like the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company facility in Orrington, complicate matters. Towns and cities entered into long-term contracts with PERC in which they agreed to deliver a certain volume of waste rated at a certain BTU content. If the municipalities fail to deliver the trash needed to power the steam turbines, they face fines.

So as they do a better job at reducing waste, they are penalized.

Against this backdrop, consider that much more household waste could be diverted from landfills and incinerators. Though such a detour is problematic in the short term, it is the direction Maine must go.

A recent statewide study of trash by the University of Maine that included tearing open about 500 bags a day over 17 days from several Maine towns to inventory content concluded that almost 20 percent could be recycled. If food and paper waste — paper towels and tissue paper — were removed and composted, the trash volume could be cut in half.

Changing household habits is more than a feel-good fix. George MacDonald, who oversees trash management at the State Planning Office, notes that for most municipalities, the cost of solid waste is the second or third most expensive item in the budget.

Though it must have been an unsavory task, especially since it was undertaken during the summer, the trash survey turned up a surprising number of salvageable items. A lot of clothing had been tossed which was fine to wear after a wash, the survey team found. There also were a lot of children’s toys, electronics like VCRs and DVD players and even bowling balls.

A report on the trash analysis project is due next year. One likely recommendation is to find other final resting places for trash. Even if it costs more in the short term, this is the direction Maine — and the nation — needs to head.

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