MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Almost two months ago, 8,000 bales of plastic waste, weighing nearly 10,000 tons, set sail on the Atlantic aboard a Northern Ireland cargo ship, the Sider London. Two of the bales fell into Penobscot Bay during offloading operations at the Sprague Energy Terminal in Searsport. Remnants of plastic from the incident drifted along the shores of Sears Island last month. The plastic waste was bound for Orrington, the home of Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC), to be burned and processed into energy.
Material Research President Jim Vallette used this recent occurrence to explain the complexities of Maine’s plastic waste system at last week’s virtual meeting hosted by Indivisible MDI. Vallette and others from his Southwest Harbor-based research organization have been following plastic for over 30 years. “It was really a shock to see waste come into the U.S. because waste follows the path of least resistance,” he said.
The roots of this incident, he said, lie on our local communities’ reliance on incineration rather than recycling as a way of dealing with household trash. All four towns on Mount Desert Island, along with Trenton, Cranberry Isles, Swans Island and Frenchboro, are among the 117 members of the Municipal Review Committee (MRC). For years, the MRC owned shares of the PERC incinerator in Orrington and delivered most of the towns’ waste there. A few years ago, the MRC shifted its investments (and waste) to a new waste-to-energy operation in Hampden, called Coastal Resources of Maine powered by Fiberight technologies.
PERC began searching elsewhere for waste replacements when the trash it received for years from over 100 Maine towns stopped coming in 2018 when half the towns moved to Coastal Resources of Maine. The Maine state law banning out-of-state waste from landfills has a loophole that allows waste to be recategorized as in-state waste if it gets processed here. This is why the plastic debris found in Searsport was allowed to travel from the Northern Ireland-based company Re-Gen Waste Management Inc. that supplies recyclable material resources to global markets.
Last year, PERC bought in millions of dollars of plastic scrap processing equipment, according to Vallette, and started importing plastic waste, first in small batches, then in the massive haul aboard the Sider London. That one shipment, he said, weighed as much as one month’s worth of trash generated by the towns of the MRC.
“The United Kingdom has no restrictions on the export of plastic wastes, is eager to get rid of them, and the United States have no restrictions on their import. Re-Gen and the United Kingdom have found the perfect target in Maine’s incinerators,” said Vallette. He explained that since January 2020, this U.K. company has supplied PERC with approximately 22.75 million pounds of plastic waste.
According to Vallette, the U.K. decided to do an end-run around new restrictions on plastic waste exports of a global waste management agreement called Basel Convention, an agreement that the U.S has yet to sign. He believes the U.K. loophole on plastic waste exports, as well as a recent bilateral agreement on waste trade between the U.S. and Canada, leaves Maine especially vulnerable to waste shipments from those countries.
Including the waste from Northern Ireland, since May, PERC has also been temporarily receiving waste from the Maine towns aligned with the MRC because the Fiberight plant in Hampden discontinued their services for being unable to secure supplemental operating funds.
With more local waste coming due to the setbacks at Fiberite in Hampden, and the 10,000 tons of plastic waste in hand from Europe, PERC’s Orrington incinerator is operating at a higher capacity. This also means it is generating more air, water and solid waste pollution, according to Vallette. He warned that the incinerator is quite old, and that its air emission license does not take into account the proportion of waste being burned that is made of petrochemicals. Further, Vallette explained that ash from the PERC incinerator is trucked to the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town near the Penobscot River. “Leachate is the liquid that comes out of a landfill and ten million gallons are piped into the Penobscot River each year,” he said.
But water in the rivers has to go somewhere. In an article published in the science journal ScienceDirect by PK Lindeque, the highest microplastic concentrations of U.S. samples were associated with the outflows of Maine’s Penobscot and Piscataqua rivers in the Gulf of Maine. When asked about the landfill’s liquid debris, Vallette agreed that leachate contains microplastics with toxic chemicals. As with the pollution coming from the PERC incinerator, Vallette states there are very few toxic pollutants in the Juniper Ridge effluent that have to be monitored on a frequent basis. “People understanding that with plastic comes a cost like the pollution of the Penobscot River and the public health impacts of the pollution is important,” said Vallette.
Vallette went on to say that over 35 million tons of plastic are generated per year in the U.S., and it has doubled what it was in 1990. “It [plastic] will keep doubling until we run out of fossil fuels,” he said. Though Vallette has no access to Maine’s pandemic related plastic waste statistics, he can’t imagine that the accumulated amount of single-use plastic waste as a result of sanitation protocols have helped with the management of plastic waste.
While Americans questioned the validity of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s contradicting mask advisories, China rushed to manufacture the temporary personal protective devices for global consumption in the U.S. Surgical masks are made from nonwoven fabrics that contain plastics like polypropylene that filter airflow to protect. Vallette noted that there is no functional difference between single use and clean reusable face coverings, so it makes sense to choose the latter whenever possible.
Executive director of A Climate to Thrive (ACTT) Lawson Wulsin said that in recent years, local towns have restricted single use plastics like bags and polystyrene foam containers, but that momentum changed when the pandemic hit. In December, the state delayed a ban on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene foam disposable food containers, from this month until July.
Last year, Upstream Solutions, a Rockland-based nonprofit that provides innovative solutions to plastic pollution, said the plastics industry was “exploiting” the pandemic to prop up single-use plastics. Associations like the American Chemistry Council and Plastics Industry Association argued against bans on single–use plastics by claiming that reusable bags or containers harbor bacteria. They wrote a letter to the U.S. government that lacked credible evidence stating that coronavirus is transferred by reusable bags or containers. “A close look at the evidence shows [plastic] industry claims about single-use plastics being the safest choice are unfounded,” said Upstream.
Wulsin can concur that the pandemic has created an excuse for a demanded supply of single-use plastic. “Just yesterday… I saw a mask on the ground,” said Wulsin. He explained how restaurants in compliance with Maine’s COVID-19 prevention checklist that switched exclusively to-go options do not seem to offer a good path to waste reduction. “The shift to to-go containers has placed an additional burden on our waste stream,” he said.
Despite these setbacks from the pandemic, Wulsin said ACTT created Sustainable MDI, which is a 2021 pledge for businesses to take initiative to reduce their carbon footprint. The pledge involves restaurants supplying reusable containers. “The Zero Waste committee has also been very active in helping navigate single-use plastic,” he said. Projects of the committee involve bulk buying of compost bins, collecting data on current methods of disposal and public presentations on disposal reduction.
“The good news is that there are things that everyone can do about this starting with our own habits of shopping and purchasing,” said Vallette. His company, Material Research, is a member of the Break Free From Plastic Movement, as is Upstream Solutions. This is a global movement, committed to a future free from plastic pollution. Vallette feels that the arrival of European waste on the shores of Maine is a wakeup call for our own communities. The costs of pollution, he said, should be factored in to how we value different solutions, and when those costs are considered, strategies to reduce waste, and create markets that reuse rather than destroy waste, will become more attractive.