Employees for CleanHarbors Environmental Services clean up shredded plastic that was coming in from Northern Ireland and headed to an Orrington waste-to-electricity plant after it fell into the water last week and began washing up on the shores of Sears Island. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — Shredded plastic from Northern Ireland that was destined to be burned at an Orrington waste-to-electricity plant has begun washing up on the shores of Sears Island.

The tiny pieces of brightly covered plastic debris littered the high-tide line along more than half a mile of the northwest corner of the island. A crew from Clean Harbors Environmental in Hampden on Wednesday began the painstaking work of separating the plastic from the half-frozen seaweed and bagging it up for removal.

The amount of plastic that washed upon the shores, and its nearly 3,000-mile journey from Europe, was perplexing to many Mainers who share d photos of the debris online. A Stockton Springs man discovered the debris while walking his dog on the island Tuesday morning. He alerted a local journalist, who took the photos, and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is conducting an investigation.

“We’re obviously concerned,” Rolf Olsen, vice president of Friends of Sears Island, a volunteer group that manages the conservation area on the state-owned island, said. “Twice a year we get a group of volunteers together and do a beach cleanup day. This is obviously beyond the scope of that.”

From top left (clockwise): A large piece of plastic waste lays on the shore of Sears Island on Wednesday after a spill occurred from a ship from Northern Ireland; Employees for CleanHarbors Environmental Services clean up shredded plastic that was coming in from Northern Ireland. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

The 8,000 bales of tightly compressed plastic, weighing about 10,000 metric tons, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in the hold of the MV Sider London cargo ship as a trial run for the project of transporting the waste to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington. It docked at Sprague Energy Terminal on Mack Point in Searsport on Nov. 28, and the offloading process began the following morning, according to Henry Lang, the plant manager at PERC.

Bad weather delayed and complicated the offloading, he said, which involved lifting the plastic-wrapped bales off the ship with slings and getting them onto tractor-trailer trucks to haul to the Orrington plant. But the ocean transit eroded the packaging wrapped around the materials, according to Sprague Energy officials. At some point, two of the bales, which weighed about 3,000 pounds apiece, broke away, fell into the water and sank, according to Shana Hoch of Sprague Energy.

“The tides pulled the packaging apart further, releasing the materials,” she said. “…We plan to mandate air bag bladders between stacks to prevent damage during transit if further shipments are made.”

So far, the company is only aware of debris washing up on Sears Island, but Hoch said it will monitor the area for additional waste.

Students from the Maine Ocean School are planning to come to the island on Friday to do a final sweep of the shoreline, according to Searsport Town Manager James Gillway.

“The kids are happy and excited to do it,” he said.

Ron Huber of the Friends of Penobscot Bay, an environmental advocacy group, went to the island to see the plastic for himself.

“I’m very shocked by this — the sheer amount of plastic,” he said. “To me it’s a telling, dreadful beginning to this importation of waste into Maine from another country … we’re becoming the dump site for the world now, evidently. I think we need to revisit the whole idea of importing waste. Who benefits? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Lang said PERC struggled last spring to secure enough waste to operate its boilers and has looked outside of Maine for secondary sources.

“We have secured this as kind of a backstop to running out of fuel,” he said.

In 2019, a much smaller trial run delivered about 500 tons of material to Maine over a five- or six-month period to ensure the debris was suitable for PERC to convert for fuel. The trial was successful, Lang said, and this year the company is importing significantly more material to Maine. It’s still determining if the costs and complications of transporting debris across the ocean makes sense.

For the Irish company providing the raw energy source, shipping debris to Maine might be more cost effective than dumping it in a landfill, Lang said.

But officials will consider the environmental concerns caused by the dropping of two bales into Penobscot Bay as they weigh the pros and cons of the deal.

“Nobody in this group would be in any way interested in seeing any environmental harm done for the sake of getting this material over here,” Lang said. “It’s the situation, and we have to deal with it as best we can.”