Volunteers worked Saturday afternoon to pick up some of the 5,000 or so pounds of shredded plastic trash from Northern Ireland that is washing up on the shore of Sears Island. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — Eleven days after 5,000 or so pounds of shredded plastic trash from Northern Ireland got dropped into Penobscot Bay — and five days after that mishap came to light — volunteers and professionals continued to search the shore of Sears Island to clean up as much as they could.

And they are far from being finished with the monumental task.

Lisanne Tholl of Prospect said that when she heard about the spill, she was livid.

“I think it’s horrendous,” she said Saturday, as she was leaving the beach after several hours of picking up tiny plastic pieces. “It looks nice right now, but we have two high tides a day. It’s going to keep washing up. I’m not a scientist, but I know that much.”

She had filled two buckets with plastic trash that day, using a hand rake to help her get to the smaller bits of trash that are under the sand. Although the larger clumps have been picked up, there’s a lot left on the shore

“We’re not done,” she said. “We’re not going to be done for a long time.”

The clean up crew is only able to pick up what they find on the shore. It’s not yet clear how much of the plastic debris remains in the water, or what harm it may cause to the water quality of the bay and the sea life that lives there.

The waste was part of a large shipment of bales of recycled plastic that crossed the Atlantic on the cargo ship Sider London. It was bound for the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company in Orrington, a waste-to-energy incinerator that intended to use it as fuel. But as the 8,000 bales were being offloaded at the Sprague Energy Terminal on Mack Point in Searsport, just across from Sears Island, two bales dropped into the water.

The incident happened on Dec. 2, according to Maine Public Radio, but it was kept private until a man walking his dog on the island six days later noticed chunks of plastic that had washed up on the shore. He alerted local journalist Ethan Andrews, who put photos of the plastic waste on Facebook.

That’s how Henry Lang, the general manager at PERC in Orrington, found out about it, too.

“We were all looking at it horrified, going, ‘That’s SRF,’” or solid-recovered fuel, he told the radio station.

Lang said that PERC struggled last spring to secure enough waste to operate its boilers and has looked outside of Maine for secondary sources, including to a company called Re-Gen Waste in the United Kingdom. Last year, PERC did a trial run to find out if the shredded plastic debris from Northern Ireland was suitable to convert for fuel.

The trial was successful, Lang said, and this year the company is importing significantly more material to Maine. But it still considers the efforts to be a trial, though on a much larger scale. Land and others at PERC are still determining if the costs and complications of transporting debris across the ocean makes sense.

A Sprague Energy official said that the ocean transit caused wear on the packaging wrapped around the bales of tightly-compressed plastic waste. When the bales were lifted off the ship, “some broke away,” Shana Hoch, a spokesperson for Sprague Energy, said this week. Two bales dropped into the bay when they were being lifted off the cargo ship, and sank immediately. Tidal action pulled the packaging further apart and released the materials, Hoch said.

The company told Maine Public Radio that divers couldn’t go after the bales when they sank because conditions were unsafe. Divers who checked the site of the spill later could not find the plastic bales.

Gary Allen of Great Cranberry Island has come to Sears Island in Searsport for several days in a row to help pick up some of the shredded plastic debris that is washing up onshore. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection only learned about the spill on Dec. 8, when a citizen called them to let them know.

After that, Sprague Energy hired Clean Harbors Environmental in Hampden, whose workers began the painstaking cleanup work on Wednesday, Dec. 9.

Gary Allen, who lives on Great Cranberry Island, said that he knew he wanted to be part of the cleanup effort as soon as he heard about the plastic spill.

“I live in Maine. We all do what we need to take care of our state,” he said. “It’s too bad when the environment takes a hit … I think that everyone wants to pitch in and do whatever it takes to fix it. Every tide seems to expose more. We’ve just been trying to get it all. We’ll get it. It’ll just take time.”

Volunteers such as Tholl and Allen have been helping every day, coming from groups such as the Friends of Sears Island, Upstream Watch and the Maine Ocean School, among others. As well, concerned citizens have come from both near and far to tackle the plastic debris.

Rose Edwards of Penobscot came to help for several hours both Friday and Saturday.

“Every bit of plastic we pick up is a piece of plastic that an animal isn’t going to eat and die from,” she said.

Her friend, Grace Brown from Bar Harbor, helped with the clean up, too.

“There’s been so many problems in 2020, it’s great to have something we can actually help with,” she said.