Future of Solid Waste: State Report Paints a Picture of Success
(from Maine Townsman, April 1998)
By Michael L. Starn, Editor

  In the past 10 years, Maine has gone from a state with a "solid waste crisis" to a state with a firm grasp on the present system of solid waste management and a bright outlook for its future. Some even say that Maine’s state and local officials have become complacent in their attitude toward solid waste management – everything is going so well.

The numbers paint a picture of solid waste success. Ten years ago Maine had 265 unlined landfills, today there are 10 secure landfills (eight municipal, two private); a decade ago Maine was recycling only about five percent of its waste, today we recycle over 40 percent; 10 years ago Maine was worried about long-term disposal capacity for both municipal waste and special waste, today the State Planning Office reports there is no shortage of landfill capacity for either type of waste, short or long-term.

How times have changed. In the August, 1987 issue of the MAINE TOWNSMAN then-Assistant Editor Ken Roberts wrote "… in terms of solid waste management systems (in Maine), there is far too much solid waste, very little management, and virtually no system."


  The latest solid waste accomplishments cited in the State Planning Office’s 1998 Waste Management and Recycling Plan depict a state that is much different from what Roberts saw 11 years ago.

An estimated 90% of Maine households have access to recycling programs.

In 1995, Maine residents and businesses generated 1,339,352 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW). Of the MSW generated, 41% was recycled. (A significant improvement over the 1993 rate of 33% and vastly improved over the 1987 projection of about 5%)

 Maine now ranks in the top 10% of states (i.e., top five) in the amount of MSW recycled.

 Nearly 40% of MSW generated is incinerated at one of Maine’s four waste-to-energy facilities.

Only 12% of Maine’s MSW is landfilled. (In the August 1997 TOWNSMAN, it was reported that Maine was disposing of 85% of its solid waste through landfilling).

And, there’s more good news!

According to the SPO report, Maine’s eight municipal landfills have a collective capacity that is sufficient until 2012 given their anticipated use as disposal sites for MSW, CDD (construction and demolition debris), and to a more limited extent, special waste. Maine’s two commercial landfills in Norridgewock and Hampden, which handle most of the state’s special waste disposal, have a combined capacity that should be adequate until 2019.

Maine’s four incinerators are operating at near 100% capacity with tipping fees averaging $40 to $55 a ton. The two private waste-to-energy facilities – Maine Energy in Biddeford and PERC in Orrington – within the last couple of years have negotiated buyout agreements of long-term energy contracts with their respective electric utilities. The result of these energy contract buyouts has been a reduction and stabilization of tipping fees at these facilities.


  Considering how rosy things look, state and local officials might be tempted to rest on their ‘solid waste laurels’. While another solid waste crisis similar to that of the mid-1980’s, exemplified by the New York City "garbarge" that no one wanted, doesn’t appear likely, at least in the short term, solid waste management in Maine remains in a precarious position. A dramatic upswing in the economy or perhaps changes in the federal regulatory arena could bring solid waste to the forefront of public policy issues again.


  As previously stated, Maine municipalities have made substantial progress in recycling. But, according to SPO’s Waste Management & Recycling Director George MacDonald, municipal officials have hit somewhat of a recycling lull. MacDonald says that municipal officials need to reinvigorate their recycling programs.

Maine has a goal of recycling 50% of its municipal solid waste. Considering how quick and relatively painless it was to reach 80% of that goal, municipal officials may think that moving from 41% to 50% presents only a modest challenge. But, like most goals, the last few percentage points toward achieving Maine’s recycling goal will be the most difficult.

Municipal officials will need to be more creative with their recycling programs. They will need to look at the hard-to-recycle items, and find or create markets to recycle these solid waste materials. For example, the statewide recycling rate for construction and demolition debris (CDD) was only 19% in 1995, according to SPO’s Waste Management and Recycling Plan.

CDD is the debris resulting from construction, remodeling, repair and demolition of structures, excluding special wastes such as asbestos. The 19% CDD recycling rate brings down the state’s overall MSW recycling rate. Obviously, CDD recycling presents an excellent opportunity to boost the overall MSW recycling rate and move toward the 50% goal.

The number of facilities in Maine that will recycle CDD is growing. Asphalt pavement and roofing, concrete and bricks, sheet rock, clean wood waste and mixed CDD can be recycled in Maine and the recycled materials have beneficial uses. Concrete and bricks can be crushed and used as a road aggregate, roofing shingles can be blended with asphalt road products, clean wood can be chipped and used as biomass fuel, and asphalt pavement can be reclaimed.

According to SPO, municipal officials also need to look at their solid waste policies to see if they inadvertently inhibit recycling. For example, regional solid waste facilities that have a fixed tonnage rate for their members sometimes encourage communities not to recycle in order to meet these tonnage requirements. Solid waste facilities that accept both recycled and non-recycled items at no cost are providing no financial incentive to the people who wish to recycle. Municipalities that limit the hours of their transfer station for receiving recycled materials, or do not provide an alternative drop-off site, may be creating a disincentive to recycle. A community that stops accepting recycled materials when the markets are not profitable may break the recycling routine of their residents.


  About 80% of Maine’s municipal solid waste, after recycling, goes to the state’s four waste-to-energy facilities. Maine’s reliance on waste-to-energy facilities in its solid waste management structure is very high when compared to other states.

In the early and mid-1980’s as the waste-to-energy facilities were coming online, their role in Maine’s solid waste management was being questioned. Questions and concerns were raised about potential air pollution problems, disposal and toxicity of the ash, and the escalating tipping fees at the waste-to-energy facilities.

By the mid-1990’s, these issues had been resolved to most people’s satisfaction and clearly to the benefit of the waste-to-energy facilities, which are now operating a near full capacity. In 1996, Maine Energy in Biddeford won an environmental leadership award from EPA for its pollution control efforts; Maine’s incinerator ash has been classified as a special waste and is landfilled in Maine; and after some organizational restructuring at the two private incinerators (Maine Energy and PERC) and financial restructuring at the public incinerators (MMWAC and RWS), tipping fees at all four incinerators have stabilized between $40 and $55, according to SPO’s Waste Management & Recycling Plan.

Two issues confront the waste-to-energy facilities today.

One is mercury emissions, which came to the forefront in the most recent legislative session. The two mass burn facilities – MMWAC and RWS – have a bigger problem with this than the RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel) facilities – Maine Energy and PERC. The solution to the mercury problem may be costly to MMWAC and RWS.

A longer term issue for the incinerators is the "beneficial use" of ash. Waste-to-energy managers would like to get away from landfilling their ash. The DEP is in the process of promulgating a long-awaited rule regarding the beneficial use of solid and special waste. The comment period on this recently released rule is ???? , and it remains to be seen to what extent the new regulations will open up new options for the disposal of solid waste ash.


  On landfilling there is consensus. Landfilling is the disposal option of last resort and regional, or large landfills are preferable for economic and environmental reasons to single community, or small landfills.

Over 280 municipal landfills have been closed over the past 10 years. It is unlikely, however, that Maine would ever get rid of all its landfills because there will always be a need in solid waste management for some landfilling. Source reduction, recycling, composting, and incineration, while substantially reducing the need for landfill disposal, do not eliminate that need.

According to SPO, Maine’s eight MSW landfills have approximately 1,280,000 tons of capacity amongst them. At projected annual disposal rates of 90,000 tons, the combined life expectancy of the landfills is roughly 15 years. If the annual disposal rate were cut in half, the life expectancy would increase to 30 years. Obviously, reductions in solid waste disposal volume have a direct correlation to the life of a landfill.

 Source Reduction

  It is somewhat ironic that the state’s highest priority in the solid waste management hierarchy – source reduction – receives the least amount of citizen, legislative, and media attention.

"Waste reduction is a preferred method for the managmeent of the solid waste stream," says the SPO report. "As a result of waste reduction measures, less waste needs to be managed through recycling, composting, incineration or land disposal. Reduction also creates less demand on nonrenewable resources and reduces potential for environmental harm."

With all these wonderful things to its credit, why is source reduction receiving such little attention. One reason is that we are a consumer-oriented society. Reusing a product doesn’t fuel the economy the same way that buying something new does. Another reason is that there is no national source reduction policy. Deposit and returnable bottle laws, as an example, are state by state. National business groups may see source reduction as negatively affecting businesses’ bottom line and are therefore resistant to regulations and laws that would require it.

Maine has a goal of reducing MSW generation by 10%, based on 1988 generation levels. In 1995, SPO estimates waste generation to be only 2% less than 1988.

There are no state regulatory incentives to reaching the 10% reduction goal, according to the SPO report. The report also points out that the goal is a policy guide, not a mandate.


  Sam Zaitlin has been on both sides, and some would say the top and bottom too, of the solid waste fence. He has run a waste paper processing company. He was mayor of the City of Saco. He was on the state Board of Environmental Protection for seven years, serving as chair for two years. He is currently senior vice president of KTI, Inc. with responsibility for acquisitions and governmental relations.

For almost 30 years, Sam Zaitlin has been a player and observer of solid waste management and recycling in the State of Maine. So, it comes as no surprise that Zaitlin has some strong views on the subject.

An underlying philosophy shaping Zaitlin’s views on the subject is that ideological and political considerations have been a key driving force behind the state’s solid waste and recycling policies. He says that ideologues and politicians are missing the point, "I personally feel they (solid waste and recycling) are infrastructure issues."

The media, activists, and government officials’ way of manipulating information to serve their own interests have shaped the state’s solid waste policies, according to Zaitlin.

Specifically, he expresses reservations about the 41% statewide recycling rate reported in SPO’s Waste Management & Recycling Plan. It’s not that he thinks the number is necessarily inaccurate; he feels that state officials have massaged their policies to get the data where they want it. For example, Maine’s returnable bottle law pre-dates the Waste Management Agency’s (now SPO’s) recycling data collection, and while included by the state in its definition of solid waste, scrap metal – copper, iron, aluminum, etc.,- for all intents and as a practical matter are not being discarded by anyone. His other issue with the recycling numbers is that he believes 1994 and 1995 were aberrational years, i.e., the markets for some recycled materials, such as cardboard and paper were extraordinarily high. Zaitlin also feels that solid waste and recycling policies have in large part been driven by crises –either real or perceived. He points to the energy crisis of the late 70’s and early 80’s. This event, he says, is what encouraged the construction of the waste-to-energy facilities in Maine, and elsewhere in the country. A regulatory act by the Federal Energy Commission, PURPA (Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act), created a national energy policy that gave preferential treatment to co-generation facilities.

In the mid and late 1980’s, EPA policies regarding landfills, along with NIMBY (not in my back yard), environmental activist support and media coverage of events like the "garbarge", helped to shape our current solid waste and recycling policies.

Zaitlin has been a long-time believer in the economic principles of supply and demand as they relate to solid waste recycling. He acknowledges that governmental policies can affect supply and demand for recycling and recycled products, but says that, practically speaking, the free market is the determining factor. To further illustrate this point, he says that states with mandatory recycling programs are generating supply regardless of demand and thereby distorting the market.

Zaitlin is also concerned over what he perceives to be an unwillingness on some people’s part to accept any risk when it comes to environmental issues. "There needs to be a balance between what is socially beneficial and economically viable," Zaitlin says. "There needs to be a much broader understanding of risk related issues and how they play out in our daily lives. Complex issues are easily distorted and sensationalized media coverage can oversimplify an issue."

Even though he admits to a relatively high cynicism in his solid waste views, Zaitlin does, however, feels that some important things are happening in the state. An SPO/DEP solid waste stakeholders group, in which Zaitlin participated, had some good ideas for Maine’s solid waste future, says Zaitlin. Whether or not those ideas are actually incorporated into SPO or DEP policies/regulations and then implemented remains to be seen.

The Zaitlin outlook of Maine’s solid waste future is one of guarded optimism, "While we’re certainly not facing any immediate crisis, many aspects of solid waste policy need to be addressed in a more comprehensive and creative fashion."


 EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was provided to the TOWNSMAN by the Waste Management and Recycling staff at the State Planning Office. The staff includes George MacDonald, Colin Therrien, Lisa Baldwin and Donna Bradstreet. 

The Waste Management and Recycling Program, of the Maine State Planning Office, has a two-fold mission: assist municipalities in improving their recycling and composting programs and ensure sufficient, environmentally secure, disposal capacity for Maine’s municipal solid waste.

A key SPO goal is to help Maine communities recycle 50% of the state’s municipal solid waste by 1998; this goal was established by the Maine Legislature in 1989. In 1995, a 41% statewide recycling rate was achieved by the combined efforts of Maine residents and businesses.

 What We Do

    1. Provide recycling and technical assistance to municipalities

Solid waste disposal costs have risen significantly in recent years, often making this budget responsibility one of the top five items in a typical municipal budget. SPO seeks to provide municipal decision makers with information, direction, and technical and financial assistance designed to aid them in disposing of their solid waste in an environmentally beneficial, cost effective manner.

Specifically, SPO provides municipalities with financial and technical assistance for waste reduction and recycling efforts. Program activities include: awarding recycling capital investment grants; recycling demonstration grants; and providing municipalities with recycling incentives and marketing assistance. These activities are guided by the solid waste hierarchy and preference is given to municipalities that take advantage of regional economies of scale. The methods that we use for working towards these goals are the following:

 Design and Award municipal recycling capital investment grants

 Test municipal or regional recycling program feasibility through recycling demonstration grants

 Establish and Promote an information clearinghouse on recycling businesses and markets

 Respond to over 3000 requests for technical assistance annually

2. Plan for the future of waste management & recycling in Maine

An important goal of SPO ‘s planning efforts is to ensure that Maine has sufficient environmentally sound, economically viable recycling and disposal capacity. The methods that we use for accomplishing these goals are the following:

 Measure the progress of municipal recycling efforts through an annual survey of Maine municipal recycling programs.

 Measure business and commercial recycling efforts through a survey of brokers and handlers of both solid waste and recyclables (every 2 years).

 Evaluate existing disposal capacity for Maine (every 2 years).

 Prepare a Waste Management & Recycling plan (every 5 years).

Towards this end, SPO also manages the review of existing solid waste and recycling policies and their effects on existing waste disposal capacity, the environment, and the solid waste infrastructure.

In addition, the SPO must recommend revisions, if appropriate, to the State’s Recycling goal (currently 50%). This evaluation, which will be undertaken by this office during the next two years, will consider recycling and waste reduction from an environmental, economic and capacity perspective. For every ton of waste we reduce, reuse or recycle, our dependence on disposal capacity is reduced by a corresponding amount.

 SPO On-line

  SPO recently revamped its Waste Management and Recycling web page; it now includes more information and is organized in a user-friendly format. The Waste Management Services Directory is now available on line — this electronic database of recycling-related businesses allows users to access only the desired information without scrolling through hundreds of pages of company names. In addition, the web page includes municipal recycling rates and program information, fact sheets on how to improve your recycling and composting programs, and comprehensive information on the state of solid waste in Maine, such as the Waste Management & Recycling 5 year plan.

If you have access to the Internet, please check out our site and let us know what you think. The site address is www.state.me.us/spo/wm&r. This page is a work in progress, so any feedback on how to improve it is most welcome!

For more information, please contact: State Planning Office, Waste Management and Recycling Program, State House Station 38, Augusta, Maine 04333-0038. Tel: 287-8050 or 1-800-662-4545