I spoke with Hank Lang last year at the Maine Resource Recovery Association’s conference and trade show. Lang, the Plant Manager at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company’s trash-to-energy facility in Orrington, told me that PERC would like to test their new “Terminator” shredder apparatus on “difficult materials.” I told him I knew of a difficult material.
Pot warp, the plastic rope (of several types) used by lobster fishermen, doesn’t maintain its strength forever. Regardless of the casual observations by people who do not fish, who sometimes remark, “Well, that rope still looks perfectly serviceable to me!” a lobster harvester will change out and replace rope on a regular basis so as not to risk preventable loss of valuable traps and catch. Remember, these guys are not necessarily some cute Grandpa out of a children’s storybook, gently hauling single traps on short warps just outside the harbor.
Much of Maine’s lobster fishery involves deep water fishing with very long lengths of rope, multi-trap trawls, high-powered hauling gear, high rates of speed, and some pretty significant pulling forces. The rope has to be reliable, and that means not too old, as the plastics involved inevitably degrade with use and time. A massive quantity of the stuff is changed out each year in Maine.
At that point, the best of it can be re-used for making doormats and such, but a lot of it is an unwanted nuisance. Once left lying around outdoors for a few seasons, for want of any better disposal option, much of it becomes “sun-rotted,” brittle and splintery.
As regular readers know, Matinicus Island is a community reliant almost entirely on the lobster fishery. Like any lobstering harbor town we have an awful lot of old pot warp underfoot. Once taken out of service-- either routinely or because of rules changes regarding rope for the protection of whales--none of the easy options for getting rid of the (quite literally) many miles of plastic rope is a good one. You might landfill it or cut it loose in the ocean, where just break up into smaller bits but never goes away. You might burn it on the shoreline, which releases a lot of revolting and toxic black smoke. You might sneak it into your regular bagged household trash, where it tangles up the works in the trash processing facility. Of course, all of these disposal methods are leftovers from the days of natural-fiber rope.
Oh, what’s that about the trash processing facility? Yes, that’s a thing now, and in many places it’s the reality. Whether a recycling sorter or a trash-to-energy plant, much of Maine’s trash goes through a mechanical sorting process involving a lot of spinning shafts, mills and choppers and shakers and augers, high-tech optical sorters, magnets, and other devices intended to separate out different types of material. These conveyor lines and huge machines break up soggy bags and large items, remove metal and glass and other materials, and render the non-recyclable trash a better fuel for burning. Long lengths of rope mixed in with household rubbish just get wrapped around the moving parts, and often cause a shutdown of the plant while workers have to cut the stuff out of the mechanism. At that point we can assume that somewhere, some unknown fisherman is being sworn at by some unknown trash plant maintenance worker. Rope must be shredded or chopped somehow before it goes through the works. Not every plant is equipped to handle rope or, for that matter fish net, monofilament, or other commercial fishing gear common in other places.
Worldwide, commercial fishing gear of any type is hard to dispose of.
Matinicus Island Recycling has been collecting old pot warp this spring for a sort of appropriate-disposal test run. The idea is we load as much rope as we can into a good-sized U-Haul and truck it off the island, first aboard the ferry to the mainland, then an hour and a half north to the PERC plant, where it would be chopped up by a rig called “the Terminator” and burned in a high-heat fire. Like with all the trash they burn, the exhaust is scrubbed of almost all particulates and neutralized, so the process is very different from an open burn. The PERC boilers run steam turbines in the power plant, generating electricity for the grid—enough electricity, I was told, to power the city of Bangor.
On the island, our rope pile grew in April to a veritable mountain, well over a man’s head. Thursday, April 19th was truck day and the last Matinicus ferry for a couple of weeks. Roughly 15 island residents, full-time and part-time, and one air service pilot gathered to load as much old rope into the rented truck as we could in the hour we had, before the ferry departed and returned to Rockland.
Every bit of that rope was loaded by hand. This was no small job.
Upon arrival at the PERC plant, at 6:30 the next morning (in intermittent snow flurries,) I was issued a hardhat and a yellow vest and shown where to back the truck into a gigantic building. On the concrete tipping floor my U-Haul was dwarfed by the tractor-trailers unloading trash and the enormous trash piles, many stories high, created by heavy equipment. It was explained that all of that waste would be turned into electricity—and a little bit of ash--in short order.
I had hoped that some of that equipment would enable us to unload the truck more easily than we’d loaded it. The PERC guys tried everything they could think of but we didn’t have much success with the available machinery. The grapple on the excavator didn’t fit very far into my box truck (because the excavator was simply too big,) and the forklift we tried to use just slipped through the rope and couldn’t grip it. A smaller excavator with a digger-style bucket might have helped, but we didn’t have one on site. Four or five PERC guys, including managers Hank Lang and Doug Britton, got stuck helping me unload the thing by hand, the same way we’d loaded it on Matinicus, only without a ferry threating to leave us. They were good sports, but I don’t believe any of them woke up that morning expecting to unload a mountain of old pot warp hand over hand. I cannot thank them enough.
Maybe next time, if the islanders decide that there should be a next time, I can find someone who’ll rent us a dump truck. I have also been approached by rope-mat manufacturers, and we’ll see if there’s a way to direct some of the better-quality used rope toward re-use. Transportation of bulky, heavy material off Matinicus Island is still complicated, expensive, and labor-intensive, but we’re giving trash-to-energy a try. This is still very much an experiment, and trucking rope around the countryside doesn’t happen for free, but it sure feels good to keep what we can out of the landfill, the ocean, and the air.
More Industrial Arts
Looking back over years of island Thanksgiving
Maine, where it's perfectly normal to be self-employed
A home for the teacher, a wringer washer, a sea turtle...How to get a teacher to an island
Cardinals, cows, and computers – A few things have changed in 30 years
A great place for honeybees
• Apple blossom time (June 7, 2017)
• Old fogeys, twitchers and stowaways: a birder's evolution (May 22, 2017)
• LifeFlight visits Matinicus Island for community training (March 20, 2017)
• At what risk? (Feb. 7, 2017)
• Using it twice (Jan. 25, 2017)
• Christmas on Matinicus, back a ways and these days (Dec. 19, 2016)
• Remember civilian heroes – A Christmas tree, two guys named Coleman, and a lot of other people (Dec. 19, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Haul away, haul away, boys... (Nov. 23, 2016)
• Politics, the middle ground, and a few probably unwelcome observations (Nov. 5, 2016)
• Islander (Oct. 20, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Brier, Muck and Igiugig (Sept. 28, 2016)
• Doctor Lightning (June 27, 2016)
• Search and Rescue (May 27, 2016)
• It's about the water (May 11, 2016)
• Eva Murray: In defiance of mud season - tips for the inspired homeowner
• Plesiosynchronicity, and a snowy day
• A day of planning and practicing in preparation for major storms (posted March 10, 2016)
• Time to take down the (island) Christmas tree (posted March 3, 2016)
• Snow Day on Matinicus (posted Feb. 14, 2016)
• Going to Rockland for pie (and beer and art glass and ukuleles...) (posted Feb. 3, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Pencil to paper (posted Jan. 21, 2016)
• A new year, a new winter (posted Dec. 31, 2015)
• ‘A tiny, happy place’ (posted Dec. 14, 2015)
• Metal artist Blair Clement brings wave-washed junk to life (posted Sept. 20, 2015)
• Maine veterans and a most sentimental biker (posted June 1, 2015)
• Wild Island Child (posted April 8, 2015)
• Last holdouts of offshore outpost finally accept reality (posted April 1, 2015)
• Truck on boat (posted March 16, 2015)
• Public works (posted Feb. 25, 2015)
• A constant struggle (posted Feb. 14, 2015)
• Pie Hero, Pie Villain (posted Jan. 29, 2015)
• Safely out to sea (posted Jan. 27, 2015)
• Je suis (posted Jan. 13, 2015)
• Making merry on Matinicus, with only a few (posted Dec. 25, 2014)
• The smallest emergency medical service around (posted Sept. 29, 2014)
• Islanders host 'Man Overboard!' discussion, rescue demonstrations (posted Sept. 8, 2014)
• Logistics (posted July 31, 2014)
• Black Hawks over Criehaven (posted July 16, 2014)
• On a sunny Saturday, when the steel band came to Matinicus (posted June 6, 2014)
• The last day of winter (posted April 16, 2014)
• Puppies, basketball champs not injured by explosive five-bulldozer wreck, dump fire, and zoning board (posted March 13, 2014)
• In a good old hardware store (in memory of Everett Crabtree) (posted Feb. 28, 2014)
• What is it like to be one of Maine's Search and Rescue volunteers? (posted Feb. 9, 2014)
• Arts and hobbies (posted Jan. 31, 2014)
• Santa Claus and the yard sales - why I own more monkey wrenches than you do (posted Jan. 15, 2014)
• Quiet on this last day of the year (Dec. 31, 2013)
• A one-room school Christmas (posted Dec. 21, 2013)
• Here's wishing us all a little rebellion in this happy season (posted Dec. 12, 2013)
• Roadside assistance (posted Nov. 27, 2013)
• On the many kinds of emergency responders (posted Nov. 18, 2013)
• (In defense of...) Breakfast for supper (posted Oct. 22, 2013)
• Fish Factory (posted Sept. 9, 2013)
• 350 dot Rockland... and many ruminations on small efforts (posted Aug. 30, 2013)
• Trains and planes and heroes (posted July 15, 2013)
• Joining the community of artists (posted July 4, 2013)
• Worth every penny (posted July 27, 2013)
• It's about showing up. Some thoughts on EMS Week (posted May 27, 2013)
• Ethanol, gasoline, and public safety (posted April 17, 2013)
• A system that makes it hard on people who want to do the right thing (part 2) (posted March 29, 2013)
• A system that makes it hard on people who want to do the right thing (part 1) (posted March 21, 2013)
• 'It's important' (posted Jan. 18, 2013)
• Tree crew (posted Dec. 28, 2012)
• Light the candles (posted Dec. 13, 2012)
• Firewood (posted Dec. 2, 2012)
• Missing man formation (posted Oct. 18, 2012)
• In the middle of the bay (posted Oct. 3, 2012)