State of Maine: Fiberight can still be a boon

No sooner have we given thanks for the last turkey sandwich slathered with mayo and cranberry sauce then we are urged by retailers to hit the stores. When the December holidays have come and gone we are left with a mountain of waste.

Back in the day much of it would have gone straight to the backyard burn barrel. Air pollution concerns have put the kibosh on that. Then came the local dump, a very fun place to take your trash and meet your neighbors, but not all that environmentally correct. Regional dumps meant solid waste went out of sight and out of mind.

There, waste was burned or buried in “landfills,” subject to much more regulation than early dumps. Modern waste disposal systems are highly technological. Rather than throwing stuff you don’t want in a hole, the focus is now on recycling discarded trash. When an item is ultimately thrown away many materials still have a future life.

The money in recycled materials gives municipalities, trash haulers and processors an incentive to develop waste disposal sites, but a contemporary waste management site does not happen on the cheap. It is based on highly technological (and expensive) sorting systems and must be big enough to realize economies of scale.

Siting is a problem. No one wants a waste disposal site in their neighborhood, no matter how modern, quiet and sweet-smelling, and it is not clear that even the newest sites meet those criteria. So what’s a municipality, large or small, to do with its trash?

For the past 27 years a group of towns in Maine have worked together to find the answer. The Municipal Review Committee (MRC) was initially formed to restructure contracts with PERC (Penobscot Energy Recovery Company), a waste-to-energy plant in Orrington that came online in 1988 but was soon struggling to stay afloat. MRC’s efforts led to stabilization of the plant.

MRC worked assiduously on behalf of its growing number of member municipalities over the next few decades, but the ending of a pricing advantage for the electricity produced by PERC and lack of progress on new agreements meant that MRC was looking for an alternative when its contracts were due to expire in 2017. About five years ago MRC decided to pursue development of a new facility that would use non-combustion processing and produce a variety of energy sources, not just electricity.

A competitive bid process led to the selection of a Maryland company, Fiberight, to build a new processing facility in Hampden. The path has not been smooth. Permitting and financing went slowly. Even the weather did not cooperate as snowstorms slowed construction. The original opening date of April, 2018 was pushed back to December, 2018 and is now set for April, 2019.

According to MRC’s website, recyclables will be sorted out and the rest of the waste will be separated into organic materials and plastics. Pulp will be processed to produce biomass fuels or new paper products; plastics will be converted to “briquets” to be used for fuel. The process will allow flexibility in terms of end products to take advantage of the best markets available at a given time. This might be helpful at a time when the market for many recyclables is crashing.

MRC represents about 180 Maine towns. Some 115 of those have stuck with the process and signed contracts with Fiberight. Ten of them are in Hancock and Washington counties. The delays have meant that a large volume of waste is going to landfills, the very kind of waste disposal MRC towns are trying to avoid. There are no other operational Fiberight facilities in the U.S.

But to think these towns bought a pig in a poke may be premature. The Fiberight building is up and the equipment delivered. Two days before Thanksgiving a giant crane lifted an 80-ton pulper into the facility. MRC officials are growing more confident that this will really happen, and when it does it will get Maine closer to its goal of 50% recycling, a goal the state has been pursuing for thirty years.

Some environmentalists have reservations about whether Fiberight’s waste-to-energy process is ideal, both in sorting and in energy production, but acknowledge that there is probably nothing better available right now. By March, 2019 the plant anticipates the start of the “on-boarding” process, admitting waste to the facility on a “stop and start” basis as the processing system ramps up to full integration in April.

Municipal officials are practical people. Trash is piling up today, and Fiberight offers an advance in recycling technology in Maine. When the plant comes online, the skeptics of today may recognize Fiberight as a bold choice by Maine’s municipal leaders who put it all on the line for effective waste management.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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