This is the year when 187 Maine towns and cities that have long sent their trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Orrington have to decide on their solid waste future.
Do they stick with the long-operating, electricity-producing incinerator, or opt for a first-of-its-kind, yet-to-be-built facility in Hampden that would separate out recyclables from the trash, convert much of the remaining waste to biogas and sell it to Bangor-area industrial consumers?
The Municipal Review Committee, the organization that has represented the towns’ waste disposal interests to PERC, favors the latter. The organization is seeking to secure enough municipal solid waste commitments before construction begins on the Hampden facility.
PERC, meanwhile, is trying to convince municipal officials that it can stay in business past 2018 following the expiration of a lucrative power-purchase agreement with Emera Maine that guarantees PERC an above-market rate for the electricity it produces.
It’s a complicated decision for the towns and cities that stretch as far north as Mars Hill and as far south as Wiscasset, including the Bangor and Waterville areas. There’s risk involved in both options.
Since solid waste disposal is one of largest budget expenses for any town or city, the decision municipal officials make this year on where they send their trash is likely to be one of the most important ones they make.
It’s unlikely that the 187 towns — which have produced about 180,000 tons of trash annually in recent years — produce enough waste to support the operation of two municipal solid waste disposal facilities in the sparsely populated region.
So they need to choose carefully, and only after performing their due diligence to ensure they’re choosing the most viable option.
While both proposals offer something compelling — the concept of converting their trash into a marketable product, be it biogas or electricity, and reducing the amount that ends up in a landfill — there are drawbacks to both that municipal officials should take into account.
With PERC, towns would agree to higher, per-ton tip rates, and — as part-owners of PERC — they would have less opportunity to lower their tip rates from sharing in PERC profits. That’s because PERC, according to financial projections its operating partners have produced, would operate on a substantially slimmer profit margin starting in 2018 and lose money on electricity generation — throwing into question its case for viability.
In choosing a yet-to-be-built facility in Hampden, towns would take a leap of faith in supporting the construction of the first commercial-scale, municipal solid waste facility of its kind — inherently a risky proposition. In addition, the towns would need to guarantee the facility — to be owned by the Maryland-based company Fiberight — at least 150,000 tons of waste each year or face financial penalties.
The minimum waste obligation gives towns less incentive to reduce the amount of waste they produce through initiatives such as single-stream recycling and pay-as-you-throw. Pay-as-you-throw programs that charge residents for each bag of trash, for example, can reduce a town’s total waste by 50 percent — as Brewer demonstrated after it implemented both pay-as-you-throw and single-stream recycling. But such a reduction in all 187 towns could inhibit their ability to meet the 150,000-ton target.
In addition, Fiberight’s biogas production depends on a wastestream heavy on organic materials such as food scraps. Organics generally make up about 40 percent of household trash in Maine, so organic waste, which can be composted, is the most logical target for waste reduction efforts. But towns that opt to send their waste to Fiberight would have limited flexibility to divert organics because Fiberight would have to sign off on any municipal organics diversion program.
That means the Fiberight facility — even with the environmental benefits of biogas production and reducing the amount of trash that ends up in a landfill — is partly at odds with behaviors Maine, as a state, should be encouraging when it comes to municipal solid waste.
Then again, the region needs a viable, environmentally friendly waste disposal option — and that option depends on the ability to secure a sufficient amount of waste, highlighting the complexity of the solid waste decision before the region’s municipal officials.