Solid Waste Issues and Recycling Goals
(from Maine Townsman, May 2001)
by Doug Rooks, Contributing Writer to Maine Townsman

Though no crisis looms on the horizon, the meat-and-potatoes issue of solid waste is getting renewed attention, as disposal costs continue to rise and the state continues to fall short of its recycling goals.

Maine may not have the trash volume to equal Boston or New York, but it is nonetheless impressive. The state produced almost 1.7 million tons in 1999, according to the State Planning Office's most recent figures, and, for the first time, it disposed of more than a million tons in incinerators and landfills.

The 1999 recycling figures have aroused concern; the percentage of trash diverted from disposal facilities has leveled off at 40 percent - well short of the goal of 50 percent, which was to be met in 1998. The Legislature has just passed, and the governor signed into law, an extension to 2003 for the 50 percent recycling target; the new law also includes, for the first time, a waste reduction goal.

State policy in this area was set by the landmark Solid Waste Management Act of 1989, which established the Maine Waste Management Agency (MWMA), set the 50 percent recycling goal, banned new private landfills, and expanded the bottle bill to include water and juice containers and wine and liquor bottles. For a time, the state recycling rate increased smartly, but has been flat since 1995 - coincidentally or not, the year that the Maine Waste Management Agency was abolished as part of an effort to reduce the state payroll by 700 employees.

The Maine Waste Management Agency was a late addition to the Productivity Realization Task Force cuts recommended during the 1995 legislative session. Gov. King had already nominated John Williams to be its director, replacing Sherry Huber; Williams was subsequently named executive director of LURC after MWMA was dissolved.

Though the move was relatively uncontroversial at the time, there have been some rumblings in recent years that the state's solid waste effort is flagging. Sen. Sharon Treat (D-Gardiner) lobbied for the 1989 law at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and has served in the Legislature since 1991. She said, "The idea was to make state government more efficient, but I'm not sure that we haven't cost towns a lot more in the process."

Nor is Treat alone is her views. Brenda Libby, spokeswoman for Maine Energy in Biddeford, says the state does its communities a disservice by not setting standard recycling rules, specifying items to be collected. And Barry Tibbetts, Kennebunk town manager, who recently spearheaded a conversion to a pay-per-bag collection system, said the state should mandate such a system for all municipalities. "If you're serious about recycling goals, there's probably no other way to do it," he said.

Maine continues to depend on four incinerators and two commercial landfills to handle the bulk of its trash. The four waste-to-energy plants are in Biddeford (Maine Energy), Portland (RWS), Auburn (MMWAC), and Orrington (PERC) handling two-thirds of the state's municipal solid waste. The major private landfills are run by Waste Management Inc. in Norridgewock and Sawyer Environmental Services (owned by Casella Waste Systems) in Hampden. Both are due for major expansions. The Norridgewock landfill has applied for an additional 4.1 million tons of capacity, while Hampden is looking to add 3.1 million. The Maine Supreme Court recently cleared the way for the Sawyer expansion after the town attempted to block it.

The two commercial landfills are much larger operations than the eight municipal landfills remaining in the state. While Bath, Brunswick, Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle and Augusta have substantial remaining capacity, estimated to last 10-20 years, their total capacity of 1.5 millions tons is dwarfed by the 7.2-million-ton expansion of the two commercial sites.

Since 1995, the state's solid waste and recycling effort has been run by the State Planning Office, where George MacDonald is the director of the Waste Management & Recycling division. Vestiges of the old Maine Waste Management Agency remain in DEP, but a program given to the Department of Economic and Community Development to set an entrepreneurial approach to recycling markets has since disappeared.

MacDonald said the new timetable for 50 percent recycling is reasonable, but will require a renewed effort by both the state and its municipalities: "We did lose a lot of momentum in 1995, when the agency was abolished, but I think we're getting it back now." MacDonald said he dislikes the notion of a crisis driving policy. "A crisis could be anything from an incinerator blowing up or catching fire to your trash not being picked up yesterday."

He sees recycling as an "awareness issue" susceptible to public education, but says that "what's going to drive the continued increase in recycling is the cost of disposal." That's certainly true in southern Maine, where rising tipping fees and incinerators operating at capacity have prompted more communities to turn to curbside recycling, mandatory policies, and pay-per-bag systems.

MacDonald said Maine still ranks in the top 10 states for recycling. "The environmental ethic of many Maine citizens remains strong," he said, but there's probably insufficient understanding of how recycling can become embedded in the production of consumer goods. After an initial price surge as paper mill recycling machines geared up, many recyclable commodity prices have dropped back down, though MacDonald says the market has now stabilized. "You can't really see recycling as a way to make money," he said. "The whole point is avoided cost - how much you don't have to pay trucking loads to the landfill."

Maine benefits from being part of the 10-state Northeast Recycling Council, which helps coordinate markets for recycled newsprint, plastics, and electronics. While Maine's goal of 50 percent recycling is ambitious, other states are moving ahead as well. Massachusetts recently embarked on a 10-year effort to reduce waste by 70 percent.

"No one wants a landfill in their backyard," MacDonald said. "As long as that remains true, recycling has to be a big part of any state's effort."

For some, the state is not doing enough. Brenda Libby said one of the biggest concerns at Maine Energy is keeping propane containers out of the waste stream. Since gas grills became popular, the incinerator has faced a flood of discarded propane tanks, and has an elaborate protocol to ferret them out, since even one tank being burned could create a hazard, and possibly a disaster. Last year, more than 300 cylinders were pulled out during sorting.

Propane tanks show up in trash "because it costs money to dispose of them properly," Libby said. Any time people have to pay to dump something, there's a strong possibility they'll try to get around it. A better way of handling propane tanks is high on her agenda.

Maine Energy, which uses refuse-derived fuel, has a different approach to burning than the RWS facility in Portland, which is a mass-burn operation. The price is quite different, too. Maine Energy charges its 24-member communities about $55 per ton in tipping fees compared to around $90 per ton (tipping fee plus member assessment) at RWS. The difference, Libby said, is how much non-burnable waste can be pulled out.

Crews do two levels of manual sorting before trash goes through magnets - to remove ferrous metal - and a new "eddy current" system that propels non-ferrous metals, primarily aluminum, out of the waste stream. Despite Maine's long-established returnable container law, incinerator operators remove 1 1/2 tons of non-ferrous metals a day. After additional processing to remove dirt and grit, trash is shredded into six-inch, then four-inch pieces, then burned.

This level of processing is necessary to efficiently operate the Maine Energy incinerator, but it's also a job municipalities could do a lot better, and more efficiently, Libby said. "Everything (non-burnable) that doesn't go into the waste stream is a big plus. It costs a lot more to get it out later."

Libby says the state should develop a standardized list of recyclable materials, and encourage towns to collect them. "The State Planning Office does a great job in spreading the word," she said. "But it's still pretty much every town for itself."

Local recycling rates vary widely, and George MacDonald cautions that the data is based on how each town reports it (and a few do no reporting at all). Nonetheless, dramatic improvements are possible. In Portland, recyclables were collected at several central (drop-off) points, and participation was dismal. Portland was recycling only 8 to 12 percent of its household trash. When curbside recycling was instituted, the rate jumped to 35 percent - one of the highest among large cities.

Sharon Treat said that recycling programs work best when they are part of a community's routine. Monmouth, in her district, has achieved 60 percent recycling by including financial incentives, but more important, by providing "a clean nice place, with friendly attendants. I bring cookies and juice when I campaign there. There are a lot of places you wouldn't do that."

Readfield turned around a "dismal recycling rate" through similar means, she said. "If town government thinks it's important, you can make it important to citizens, too."

Some towns continue to overhaul their solid waste efforts, based largely - as MacDonald observed - on rising disposal costs.

In Pittsfield, Town Manager Dwight Dogherty noticed that solid waste costs were outpacing other budget items, and asked the town council to consider alternatives. The council wasn't much interested in a pay-per-bag system. But it did support a mandatory recycling policy that includes periodic pickup runs by commercial haulers. In the first three months of the new system, the town saved about $10,000 in tipping fees, while paying out about $7,500 for the collection runs. Pittsfield has produced recyclables at "a record breaking pace," Dogherty said, and even though prices are generally low, he's pleased that 218 tons have been diverted from the waste stream.

Dogherty said there's been "generally good acceptance" of mandatory recycling, after dealing with "the initial rebellion of certain individuals." The town did have to pass a new ordinance imposing a $250 fine for dumping household trash in commercial dumpsters, or in public trash barrels. "They almost always leave a name and address on an envelope," he said. "We manage to track them down."

Kennebunk faced a dilemma familiar to communities in many of the nation's most populous areas. With 80 to 100 new houses a year being built, Kennebunk was rapidly reaching its quota at Maine Energy. If it exceeded 9,000 tons per year, its $55 tipping fee would go to market rates - $80-$100, if indeed it could find someplace to take the waste.

"It wasn't hard to see the problem coming," said Town Manager Barry Tibbetts. He researched the various alternatives, including mandatory recycling, and concluded that only a pay-per-bag system would make a big enough dent in the problem.

Kennebunk went to a straight user-fee system - residents buy special trash bags, or stickers for their own, at $1.50 for a 33-gallon bag or 65 cents for a 15-gallon bag. The proceeds are deposited in a fund separate from other town accounts, with the intent that the system pay for itself, and no more.

Tibbetts is sold. "In a matter of months, we reduced our trash volume by 20 percent, and increased recycling by 40 percent. It was even more dramatic than we expected."

Not everyone was as happy, at least initially. Petitioners brought a referendum to the ballot last November, but it failed, 3,600-3,300 and pay-per-bag remains in place. Tibbetts is thankful the new system was in operation for four months before the vote came, so people could see how it actually worked. Now, it appears to be here to stay.

Pay-per-bag, he said, is almost never adopted by popular vote, but by selectmen or councils facing a pressing problem. The beauty of the system, he said is that "if people want to be lazy and throw everything out, they can - for a price. If they want to be environmentally responsible and recycle everything, they benefit."

After seeing pay-per-bag in effect, Tibbetts thinks it's the way to go for everyone. "Seventy or 80 towns already use it. The state should take the lead and mandate it for all communities, by 2002 or 2003. That's the way to meet the recycling goal."

The Legislature has put solid waste on the back burner for the past few sessions, and even an abstract 50 percent recycling goal isn't necessarily going to change things - a deadline once delayed can be delayed again. Yet communities with vigorous recycling programs are convinced of their benefits, and various forms of regulation - with pay-per-bag the most popular, at least in southern Maine communities - are becoming widespread.

A lot depends, says George MacDonald, on what a community is trying to do - encourage recycling, reduce trash volume, cut the budget, or have people pay for what they use. Recycling programs that are easy and convenient are the ones that work, he said. In some places, that may mean curbside recycling; in others, central collection points may work, particularly if residents visit the transfer station themselves.

Some question whether the State Planning Office is the right agency to lead the recycling charge. "Their usual job is to recommend, not to implement," said one observer. There certainly hasn't been the same level of state assistance. The Maine Waste Management Agency distributed $12 million in grants to municipalities to buy equipment and set up programs. There hasn't been much money since; the King administration has requested $600,000 for local assistance as part of a current bond issue.

"We've come a long way," said Brenda Libby. "It was only 20-25 years ago that we had open burning dumps, where you pulled up and threw your trash onto the fire. We've managed to learn that much at least - we can no longer throw and forget."

Maine Solid Waste Collection 1993-99

(in thousands of tons)

Year  Disposed of Recycled  Total % Recycled
1993  872.0 421.3 1,293.3 32.5
1995  782.5 556.8 1,339.3 41.5
1997  955.2 679.9 1,675.1 40.5
1999 1,011.3 684.6 1,695.9 40.3