By Kathryn King, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Nobody likes to talk about our trash, whether at the municipal or state level. Let’s face it: Trash isn’t what most people would consider dinner table conversation. But maybe it should be, because organic waste, including food scraps, makes up a huge portion of our municipal solid waste, a portion that could easily be reduced with some education and proper municipal and state planning.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the University Of Maine School Of Economics, organic materials make up more than 43 percent of residential waste streams in Maine. You might wonder why economics professors are digging through trash to determine its makeup. It turns out trash and cash go hand in hand.
Handling municipal solid waste is generally one of the top five costs for any municipality. Hampden, where I live, spent $405,000 to manage our trash in 2014. Think what could happen to that yearly bill we all pay if we removed 43 percent of the waste we throw away in the first place. Officials in many communities already recognize the potential for huge savings by simply removing organic material. Food scraps alone make up more than a quarter of our trash from municipal waste streams.
Intelligent, long-term planning that can address economic and environmental concerns should include plans to capitalize, literally, on the relatively easy goal of removing organic material from our municipal waste streams. But the Municipal Review Committee is actively working to promote a materials management system that demands municipalities do not remove costly organic material from the waste they ship out of town.
Hampden is targeted as the site for a new Fiberight facility proposed as an alternative to PERC. Fiberight is being sold, not by Fiberight but by officials within the MRC, which exists, in its own words, “to work with the PERC partnership to improve facility operating and economic performance.” Indeed, 87 towns within the MRC have invested enough money in PERC to own nearly 25 percent of the partnership.
As has been pointed out by many people with knowledge of the subject, including executives at Fiberight, the technology being proposed has not been tested on the scale being proposed in Hampden, a scale that actually requires nearly all of the MRC towns to participate just to be viable.
MRC Executive Director Greg Lounder said of Fiberight, “We’re excited that we have secured a location for a project that will both advance our mission and closely align with the state’s solid waste policy goals.”
In reality, Fiberight will do neither.
According to its website, the MRC’s mission is to work with PERC to improve the facility and save towns money.
Maine’s solid waste policy is to follow this hierarchy of waste management priorities: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, processing and beneficial use, waste-to-energy and landfilling, in that order! Even if this does ultimately work — and nobody has tested this technology at anything close to this scale — Fiberight is only viable if towns continue to throw away their organic matter, contrary to Maine’s state policy hierarchy. That’s because a large part of the business plan includes the conversion of that organic material into energy.
Communities should understand they can get large sums of money back if they decide not to invest in an unproven technology that incentivizes towns to not remove organic materials, which are heavy and therefore costly to transport.
Bangor has more than $4.2 million invested in the tipping fee stabilization fund. Hampden? More than $500,000. We could use just a portion of that $500,000 to create a program that helps residents separate organic material and compost it at the community level. That compost could either be used by residents in their gardens and lawns or by the town for our parks and other municipal properties. Inexpensive programs such as this have proven track records in places around New England and the rest of the country.
Fiberight is by no means a done deal. As we head into town meeting season, remember what is at stake — spending the next few decades locked in with a company that makes more money when your town sends more trash, especially expensive-to-transport organic materials. Make sure your select board knows where you stand.
Kathryn King lives in Hampden.