As we head into 2016, many Mainers are talking about trash. State lawmakers are discussing a bill to move Maine closer to our goal of recycling 50 percent of our solid waste. Communities are exploring ways to recover food waste, increase composting and reduce the use of throwaway plastic bags and foam packaging.
Then there’s the biggest topic of them all: Where will the 187 Maine towns that are members of the Municipal Review Committee, or MRC, send their trash when their contracts with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Center, or PERC, expire in 2018? Will towns renew contracts with the PERC incinerator, stay on with the MRC and gamble on a first-in-the-nation Fiberight facility or return to the days of sending their waste directly to landfills?
The outcome of these 187 individual town decisions will determine whether PERC survives, Fiberight moves forward or both collapse because neither secures enough waste to be economically viable.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine has a strong interest in preserving the integrity of Maine’s solid waste management hierarchy, which prioritizes “reduce, reuse, recycle” over disposal. We have looked carefully at the options and conclude that — though not ideal — sustaining PERC, combined with improved community-based waste separation, recycling and composting programs represents the best path forward for the foreseeable future. Fiberight would lead us in the wrong direction.
One big problem with the Fiberight option is that Maine would be the guinea pig for this technology. Although Maryland-based Fiberight operates a pilot project in Virginia, it has never built a commercial-scale project in the U.S.
In 2010, the company claimed its “game-changing disruptive technology” would create jobs and spread to 250 communities across the nation. Over the past six years, however, Fiberight’s proposed plant in Iowa has missed multiple deadlines and repeatedly announced plan changes. These unsettling setbacks moved Iowa City to refrain from making a commitment to send its trash to Fiberight, deciding instead to watch this faltering project from the sidelines. This should serve as a warning.
In February 2015, Hermant Pendse, a University of Maine professor who authored a technical review of Fiberight, pointed to the Iowa project as reason for comfort: “In other words, we are not the first ones working on this, we are the second — and will benefit from being second.” But the Iowa facility appears to be going nowhere, so Maine would go first.
Building and operating a first-of-its-kind facility that produces biogas from solid waste is a high-risk proposition. Also, we should recall this is not the first time Maine has heard big promises of a revolutionary biofuel plant. Case in point: Old Town Fuel and Fiber.
The Old Town mill owners also had a grand vision to build a first-in-the-nation facility to convert wood into aircraft biofuel. As with Fiberight, supporters pointed to a financier — Patriarch Partners — as proof of viability. They cited research suggesting that wood fiber could be converted into a biofuel. The project attracted $30 million in Department of Energy funding, giving further evidence of viability, but the project failed. The company declared bankruptcy, fired its employees and closed the mill.
These should be big worries for MRC towns, but they’re not the only ones. The Fiberight contract allows the company to block communities from adopting food waste recovery programs, like composting. Fiberight doesn’t want homeowners collecting food scraps for compost because it needs organic materials to make biogas. By doing so, Fiberight would move Maine in the opposite direction of most of our neighboring New England states, which are succeeding at separating food and organic waste from the rest in ways that have saved money, created jobs and increased food donations for hunger relief programs.
We Mainers are known for making the most with what we have, Yankee ingenuity, and waste not, want not, thrift. Fiberight’s approach would send us in the opposite direction. If Fiberight were built, it would eliminate incentives to reduce waste at the household level because all waste would mindlessly go, unsorted into one bin. Towns participating in Fiberight would become a big “don’t recycle or compost” zone in the center of the state, which would inhibit the rest of Maine from expanding effective, statewide programs to recover food waste and collect high-quality recyclable commodities.
MRC towns face a difficult decision. Fiberight offers lofty promises, but for these reasons its proposed facility would be bad for Maine.
Sarah Lakeman is the Sustainable Maine Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.