Viewpoint: It may not make sense to walk away

By Carey Donovan

I have not met Jim Vallette in person (pandemic caution), but we have phoned and emailed and I have seen his resume. His involvement with waste issues goes back decades, and he brings a wealth of knowledge and a commitment to this issue. He is correct that his research into DTE ‘s history and track record brought many things to light that should have been discovered and shared long before DTE became favored as the future next operator for the Coastal Resources plant in Hampden. Other companies are now being considered. 

You may sense that I am building towards a “but.” Here is my caution. Yes, the Fiberight plant failed in 2020, but it failed due to lack of financing, not because the plant didn’t work. Many of its financial difficulties were due to circumstances beyond the plant’s control. The twin goals of the Fiberight plant, also known as Coastal Resources of Maine, are to divert waste from the landfill (a good thing) and to make money from our trash (making money is what businesses aim to do). With multiple systems in place to pull recyclables out of the trash, the CRM plant expected to earn revenue from these products. But as the plant was being built, China stopped accepting recyclables and the recycling market collapsed. Instead of getting paid for the recyclable materials, sometimes it was a matter of paying to have them taken off their hands. 

The CRM plant is a complex, highly technical facility. It runs several processes under one roof. This venture is looking for any possible way to turn the material in our trash into a useful product. They had a process that turned plastic film into briquettes to serve as an industrial fuel. The process worked and they had an interested buyer but without a DEP permit they couldn’t sell the product. The DEP permit came through at just about the same time that the plant closed.  

They added a pulper so they could turn our discarded paper and cardboard into a marketable pulp product. But without a DEP permit, they couldn’t sell the pulp. They ended up paying for the pulp to be deposited at the landfill and that led them to shut down that process for the time being. The pulp permit came through – you guessed it – at just about the same time that the plant closed. 

Many people have predicted the plant’s failure and I don’t think anyone can tell you for sure how successful it will be, but they were experiencing success on several fronts. During the year that they were in operation, they were fine-tuning and learning how to improve their systems. In the spring of 2020, they were expecting an additional investment of funds that would allow them to make improvements to the plant, but when that deal fell through, the plant closed. 

So here is the question. Does it make sense to walk away from a $90 million plant without giving it another chance to succeed? Recycling markets are back. The late-arriving permits remain valid and transferable. Does it make sense to abandon this project? 

Here is another question. If we abandon the plant, where would our waste go? There are two choices – to the incinerator in Orrington or the landfill in Old Town. Neither of these are desirable: landfill and waste-to-energy are at the very bottom of the waste hierarchy. 

Vallette raises concern about the constraints of MRC’s long-term contract. The constraints are real, but there are two sides to this coin. First, a long-term contract is necessary for the operator of the plant. No one wants to take on a $90 million plant for a year or two or five. The 115-town contract assures the plant operator a sufficient amount of material for a sufficient amount of time to make it worth being in business. The benefit to the towns is that because you are banded together in a contract with 115 towns, you pay a lower tipping fee (the amount your town pays per ton for the plant to receive your material). A town that doesn’t belong to the MRC contract would find itself with two lesser options – landfill/incinerator – and a much higher tipping fee, which would result in a significantly higher cost for their town. Dealing with trash is not cheap. 

Vallette is correct, of course, that it is a giant step backward to have had no recycling options in many of our towns for a much longer period of time than anyone would have expected. Several area towns are currently looking into getting recycling going again. Vallette would like the towns to band together and create a multi-town recycling program that would divert a lot of material from the waste stream. I share that dream and have been looking into what it would involve. It is the right thing to do but expecting it to save the towns money may not be realistic. One would logically assume that recycling saves the towns money but it often costs more to recycle than it does to discard. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recycle – it just means we should lower our expectations about the money we are expecting to save. 

If we had a dandy recycling program and a functioning Fiberight plant we would have the best of both worlds. Not everyone is going to take the time and care to save and sort and deliver their recyclable materials to a facility. A functioning Fiberight plant would add value by pulling recyclable materials out from the trash that they do receive. 

Overall, the best solution for trash is not to have so much of in the first place. Reduce and reuse are the strategies of choice. 

Carey Donovan lives in Bernard. 

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