Opinion

Don’t burn your trash. We can do better

Posted:  Monday, May 23, 2016 - 9:30pm
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Dear Friends and Community Members : There is an important meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, May 24, at 6:30 p.m. in the Washington Street Conference Room in the back of the Camden town office. This will be a public hearing and informational session on the issue of solid waste which we will be voting on at town meetings this year in Camden, Rockport, Hope, and Lincolnville.

Having spent an enormous amount of time researching this issue, I am very concerned that the Board of Midcoast Solid Waste Corporation (aka the dump/transfer station), is recommending an option that is not only going to be more expensive but also carries a much heavier carbon footprint than the alternative.

Trash is a complicated issue, believe it or not, and it takes extensive research to understand all the factors. Jim Guerra (transfer station manager, lifelong composting enthusiast, and pioneer recycler) has been very patient with me, explaining the intricacies of anaerobic digestion and the climate benefits of converting our trash to biogas rather than burning it to make electricity. 

However, our boards have not done the extensive research that many other municipalities have done and have failed to listen to experts like Jim in our own community. They are choosing to drive our trash almost twice as far away out of an unreasonable fear that the newer and much more environmentally friendly facility won't work properly, even though there are hundreds like it in Europe. It will be the first of its kind in the United States and has been extensively vetted by everyone from private investors to independent engineers. And did I mention it will actually cost us less? It's a rare and exciting opportunity.

Anyway, please consider attending the meeting tomorrow. For those who want to learn more, below is a letter I wrote to Select Board members from the 4 towns, detailing my reasons for opposing the continued incineration of our trash.  

Also, the Belfast City Council just voted unanimously to go with Fiberight. The archived video is a wealth of information for anyone interested. Here is the link. Scroll to item 10B. 

And in case you're still reading this far down, here's a free press article by Andy Obrien detailing the issue: http://freepressonline.com/Content/Special-Features/Special-Features/Article/Towns-to-Vote-on-Whether-to-Burn-Their-Trash-or-Convert-It-into-Biofuel/52/78/44736 

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Dear Members of the Boards,

We have a big decision facing us about where to send our trash after 2018. I write to you as a Camden resident, as an advocate for the environment, and as an engaged member of the community. I serve on the Camden Budget Committee, the Camden Conservation Commission, and volunteer maintaining the town Facebook page... so I know it's a busy time of year for you all. There have been an overwhelming amount of meetings lately, and if I feel a little weary from all of them, I can only imagine how you all feel. I appreciate you hopefully taking the time to read this. Who knows, maybe it will save you some research. 

I've been attending Mid-Coast Solid Waste Board meetings for the past two years. I've only missed a couple, and feel I have a good understanding of the factors that were considered in the lead up to the MCSWC board recommendation to go with Ecomaine. I've also been attending meetings of the Hampden Citizen's Coalition and volunteering to maintain their website (the group of citizens that was formed to advocate for the rights of Hampden residents living near the now closed Pine Tree Landfill). You might say that solid waste has become a bit of an obsession for me and I actually began this process quite opposed to Fiberight out of a concern for the people of Hampden. But, as a Mainer and as an environmentalist, I know that Maine is in dire need of regional solution for waste disposal other than landfilling. I've spent many hours attending DEP meetings in Hampden and questioning and arguing with Jim Guerra, our representative to the MRC, and I've come to feel as enthusiastic about the possibility of Fiberight as he is. Jim is a lifelong environmentalist who worked closely with the other members of the MRC to come up with an option that is for once both the cheapest and the most environmentally friendly.  I've learned enough to know that we have a long way to go, and there are no easy answers or silver bullets, but for the first time in many years, we have choices and what we decide matters. This is why I believe that sending our trash to Ecomaine and withdrawing from the Municipal Review Committee and the 186 towns we now partner with is the wrong decision for the Midcoast, for Maine, and for the environment. 

Although the MCSWC board took this effort seriously, and I know it was a grueling decision for them, I don't think there was enough time or public participation to fully consider the options. There are a few things that I don't think were fully discussed by the MCSWC board, or perhaps misunderstood. I've broken my thoughts  down into a few different areas to make it easier to digest...  

BASIC OVERVIEW:

PERC is an incinerator that uses our trash to make electricity. Our contract with PERC has been overseen by the Municipal Review Committee for 25 years. The MRC is a group run by a volunteer board of directors, all municipal representatives elected by the member towns (our elected member is Jim Guerra). The problem with PERC is that they sold the electricity at above market value and now that the subsidies are running out, their business model doesn't work. The MRC has spent the past 5-7 years anticipating this issue and working on alternatives. They vetted many different proposals and eventually chose Fiberight, a company that uses mechanic biological treatment and anaerobic digestion to create biogas. Their process first pulls out as many recyclable materials as possible (things that still make it into our trash despite our best intentions). Then they use a special system for digesting the leftover material to create biogas which is sold on the open market. Member communities will be entitled to rebates based on the profits, which are expected to be significant. The MCSWC has voted to recommend that we break our ties with the MRC and go with Ecomaine instead, based largely on apprehension about the technology being new to the United States. Ecomaine is also an incinerator, although with a slightly more efficient and environmentally friendly business model, some would say.

 

INCINERATORS ARE THE PAST, ANAEROBIC DIGESTION IS THE FUTURE

Much of the discussion at the MSCSW board level has centered around apprehension that the Fiberight process won't work. It's understandable that they would feel this way. It has taken a lot of energy for me to understand it over the past two years and read about the similar things that are going on in Europe. But the reality is that Fiberight's biggest investor is Covanta Energy, the biggest waste-to-energy (incineration) company in the country. The biggest incineration company is investing 80 million dollars in a trash to biofuel plant. They have vetted the Fiberight technology and are funding the building of the plant because they know that it will work and they will make money from it, even if it takes a bit to work out the glitches. Yes, there is a risk. As critics have pointed out, Maine will be the first to use this exact process on such a scale, but since when have we been afraid of going first? Anaerobic digestion is not new, and across Europe, the process of turning waste into biogas is a well established part of the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here are some of the main benefits I see for the environment:

 

  1. Anaerobic digestion is like composting without oxygen under controlled conditions. Much of our waste stream is made up of organic material. Separate collection of food waste in a rural state like ours may come with a big carbon footprint, and some people still won't want to do it. Food scraps do not burn well in Ecomaine's incinerators but Fiberight's process will use anaerobic digestion to turn this portion of our trash into biofuels. 
  2. Displacing fossil fuels: Biogas is generally considered to be a carbon-neutral source of energy because the carbon emitted during combustion was "new" plant based carbon that was already in the atmosphere, as opposed to the combustion of fossil fuels which burns carbon that had been sequestered for millions of years, and releases it into the atmosphere. Thus, replacing fossil fuels with biogas cuts down on GHG emissions associated with energy production.
  3. Fiberight's sorting facility will add to existing recycling programs by pulling out and baling the recyclable materials that people are still throwing away. Watch a video of the process at work in the demonstration facility.

 

CARBON FOOTPRINT MATTERS

Although I'm thrilled to see that the debate is centering around which choice is the most environmental, by a great project that was the best choice for Portland, and not for us. Environmentalists have long been critical of incinerators, and while they've improved, no one would argue that they are an efficient way of producing electricity. The air emissions they create are still the subject of much concern (considerably greater than any air emissions from Fiberight). Here's a link explaining some of the issues: https://www.ecocycle.org/files/pdfs/WTE_wrong_for_environment_economy_community_by_Eco-Cycle.pdf To think that we would be willing to pay extra money and increase our carbon footprint with the longer hauling distances for the environmental benefit of incineration is a bit laughable from an environmental perspective.

I've attached a proposal from Fiberight which spells out how we can partner with them to create a carbon neutral recycling/transfer station (see attachment) 

ECOMAINE IS NOT A REGIONAL SOLUTION. THERE IS REAL POWER IN BANDING TOGETHER WITH OTHER TOWNS TO MAKE THESE DECISIONS.

Ecomaine is a facility currently operating at capacity. They take in mostly municipal waste from their member towns and also about 40,000 tons of commercial waste. They've been hit hard by the diminishing price of recyclables. Revenue is down about 3 million dollars, and for them, it makes sense to replace as much commercial waste as they can with municipal waste.  They can charge a higher tipping fee. The MRC towns represent about 180,000 tons of trash annually and the Fiberight facility needs about 150,000 tons worth of trash to operate profitably. This means that if Ecomaine succeeds in getting 40,000 tons worth of towns to sign up with them, it may mean the Fiberight facility can't be built. This will reduce the options available to the whole region. By sticking with the MRC, we maintain municipal oversight that protects our interests as they always have and we invest in a solution for sustainable waste to disposal in our entire region. 

FIBERIGHT WILL SEND THE SAME AMOUNT TO THE LANDFILL AS ECOMAINE, WITH MUCH LESS AIR EMISSIONS

Ecomaine often mentions that they reduce the waste they take in by 90%, only landfilling 10% of waste by volume. The key here is that they refer to volume whereas the rest of the solid waste calculations are always done by weight. 10% by volume translates to 20-25% by weight, which is about the same as the Fiberight process. The big difference is that Fiberight will have a fraction of the air emissions that an incinerator has. 

COST OF HAULING EXTRA DISTANCE

The bottom line is that it is going to cost us more to go to Ecomaine. It is considerably farther away, and with the hauling rates we've been quoted, it will be about $80,000 in additional fees annually. The trouble is that gas/diesel prices are quite low right now. These hauling fees will only increase. When oil prices rebound, so will our hauling costs.

EDUCATION PROGRAMS NOT REALLY FREE

One of the things the MSCWC board was impressed with w​ere​ the education programs from ecomaine that we can hopefully use to help educate the community and reduce our waste. I too loved the model that is working well for Portland. However, the education programs rely entirely on us switching to single sort recycling. This may end up making sense for us in the long run, but it is going to be cost us, and it will cost us more with ECOMAINE than with FIBERIGHT. Currently, we actually make money some years on our recycling program, but Ecomaine will charge us $38/ton to process our recycling. That doesn't include the cost of hauling the material which is $32/ton. Current Ecomaine member communities deliver their recyclables to the facility for FREE, but they will charge us the private hauler rate. Essentially, we will be subsidizing the Portland area waste disposal program. We are of course free keep doing what we do with recyclables, but ecomaine's education programs won't be useful to us. 

WE DO NOT NEED ECOMAINE TO DO EDUCATION PROGRAMS

There are education program curriculums widely available and we could implement them for without going through Ecomaine. Here's a link to a proposal from the Maine Resource Recovery Association, an organization that is already doing education programs in Maine that supports the Fiberight proposal. They have worked with us for years helping to market our recyclables. They are the go to resource for recycling in Maine and have programs available to boost participation no matter what direction we decide to go with our recycling (single sort vs staying the way we are).

WE SHOULD BE INVESTING IN A SOLUTION FOR OUR CONSTRUCTION DEBRIS. OUR LANDFILL IS FILLING UP FAST AND IT'S EXPENSIVE

The conversation about where to send our trash centered around all the waste reduction we could implement if Ecomaine comes and trains our communities how to recycle and compost. It's a nice idea but the options that have worked for Portland to reduce waste have been single sort recycling and curbside composting, and those may not be our highest priorities. Composting is great, don't get me wrong, but we have very limited space here at the transfer station and it's hard to imagine a curbside compositing program taking off in our rural areas. People do this at their homes and that makes lots of sense. This is something people are willing to pay for in urban/suburban areas only. Where we should be focusing our energy is on reducing what goes into our own landfill. We should be composting our yard waste, not allowing it to rot in our landfill and produce methane. We should dedicate a space for sorted construction debris so that reusable lumber and other things can be sorted and perhaps even marketed. Our landfill is going to close eventually and we'll have no where for construction debris to go. At the same time, it will continue to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs for pumping leachate and a variety of other things due to the environmental hazards it presents. We should be investing extra money in things like this, not in trucking our household waste extra distance to Portland. 

IN THIS CASE, WE SHOULD TRUST THE EXPERTS AND STICK WITH THE GROUP. 

As a community group that cares about the environment, I hope that we will look beyond our own little bubble and see ourselves as part of a larger state that needs a regional solution for our waste. Sure, we could pay the extra money so that Ecomaine will take our trash and kick out the commercial trash we'll replace to the nearest landfill, but if we all make decisions like this, where does that leave Maine? 

I appreciate you considering these things as you make your recommendation. Here are a few links that may be of interest to you:

Here's an example of an MSW facility in Europe with similar technology:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwALdw7AQs0

Here's a final article from the Maine Resource Recovery Association in case you missed it: http://freepressonline.com/Content/Download-the-current-issue-as-a-pdf/Letters-Opinions/Article/About-the-Proposed-Fiberight-Project-for-Municipal-Solid-Waste-/93/450/44074

South Thomaston voters just decided not to go with their Solid Waste Board's recommendation of Ecomaine. Convincing residents to pay more for something has to come with very clear environmental benefits, in my opinion. This article explains some of their reasons for choosing to stay with the MRC:

https://bangordailynews.com/2016/03/30/news/midcoast/south-thomaston-voters-back-fiberight-for-waste-disposal/?ref=moreInmidcoast

Profit sharing information on MRC:

http://bangordailynews.com/2016/03/25/news/state/panel-tackles-confusion-over-hampden-trash-plant-profit-sharing-deadline/ 

Thanks to all for your time and consideration.