A large piece of plastic waste lays on the shore of Sears Island on Wednesday after a spill occurred from a ship from Northern Ireland. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

SEARSPORT, Maine — When nearly 3 tons of shredded plastic trash from Northern Ireland was accidentally dumped into Penobscot Bay earlier this month, Maine environmentalists decried the state’s weak laws governing out-of-state waste, saying the incident shouldn’t have happened.

The plastic material, which has been washing up on the shores of Sears Island, fell into the bay while being offloaded from a cargo ship. Its ultimate destination was the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington, a waste-to-energy plant that generates electricity from incinerating trash.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t released its report on the cause of and response to the plastic spill, but the incident has fueled the debate over whether Maine should allow waste to come in from outside the state.

While Maine has banned out-of-state waste from its landfills for decades, there’s a loophole in state law that allows waste to be reclassified as in-state waste as long as it goes through some level of processing here. That’s allowed many tons of construction and demolition debris that have been banned from Massachusetts landfills to end up in the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. And it’s allowed PERC to take in waste from outside of Maine, largely from Massachusetts, for years.

“It’s legal to do, which is part of the problem,” said Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “You have to ask yourself why would it make sense for the U.K. to ship waste over here? It’s because we make it easy. This waste is going to follow the path of least resistance.”

What happened in Searsport

The plastic trash in Searsport came from Re-Gen Waste Management Ltd. , a United Kingdom-based company whose business model includes supplying “high quality recycled material to the global marketplace.”

Last year, Re-Gen Waste shipped 500 tons of the waste to Orrington over a five- to six-month-period. It was a successful trial to determine that the waste was compatible with the boilers, according to Henry Lang, plant manager at PERC.

PERC has been looking for alternative sources of waste since the trash it received from more than 100 Maine towns for decades stopped coming in 2018, after those communities decided to send their waste to a competing plant that was under construction in Hampden. Many of those towns have temporarily been sending their waste to PERC since the summer, after the Coastal Resources of Maine plant in Hampden shut down in May when it was unable to secure additional financing.

When cargo ship Sider London docked at the Sprague Energy Terminal on Mack Point in Searsport on Nov. 28, it was carrying a shipment of 8,000 bales of PERC-bound waste in its hold. But the plastic wrappers on the bales degraded during the ocean crossing and two were accidentally dropped into the bay Dec. 2 during the unloading and immediately sunk, according to Sprague officials. The bales had a combined weight of about 5,776 pounds.

The company initially considered deploying boats and divers to recover the debris, Sprague spokesperson Shana Hoch said, but the bales weren’t visible. Weather and water conditions at the time also were too risky for divers.

“With the plastics dispersed, the benefit of using divers was deemed too low to risk human life,” she said.

The weather last week was more favorable, and professional divers checked the spill site but found no signs of the plastic or the bales, she said. The company did not immediately notify the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, PERC or the public about the incident.

Instead, it reached out to its consultants for support and recommendations on the best course of action, Hoch said.

Several days later, a man walking his dog along the shores of Sears Island spotted heaps of plastic debris there. That’s when the DEP heard about the spill, and when Sprague hired Clean Harbors Environmental of Hampden to manage the cleanup.

As of Monday, Hoch estimated that Clean Harbors and volunteers have collected more than 21,000 pounds of debris from the beaches. The sand, water and seaweed add weight, Hoch said.

Employees for CleanHarbors Environmental Services clean up shredded plastic that was coming in from Northern Ireland and headed to an Orrington waste-to-electricity plant after it fell into the water last week and began washing up on the shores of Sears Island. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The cleanup efforts so far have been focused on where the debris has been spotted along a 1.3-mile swath from the entrance of the Sears Island causeway to the head of the Green Trail beach path on the west side of Sears Island.

But there are reports that some plastic debris may be migrating. Sprague officials said Monday that shredded materials had been reported about midway down the western shoreline of Islesboro.

Company officials were expected to meet Tuesday with the person who reported that debris.

Those who see plastic debris in the area, should contact Sprague company officials at Maine@spragueenergy.com.

“We will clean up as needed,” Hoch said.

Blame and questions

Lang, who didn’t learn about the spill until days after it happened, described the incident as disheartening.

“The fact that it happened is so much the opposite of what we were trying to accomplish,” he said. “We have taken on this [solid recovered fuel] as a way to backstop our fuel supply. It’s not meant to supplant Maine waste. That was never our intent. But we can’t have an operation that runs out of fuel in the winter, for whatever reason.”

If PERC had to close, he said, a lot more waste would have to go into landfills, which he described as “not a best-case scenario.”

“If we could reach a reality where everything could be recycled, I think that would be awesome. We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re sick here to have this in the bay. We’ve offered to do whatever we can do to help with the cleanup.”

Jim Vallette, the president of Southwest Harbor-based firm Material Research, helped achieve a global ban on the export of toxic waste when he was working for Greenpeace. He thinks that PERC — and ReGen — should be doing more to clean up after the spill of tons of plastic waste. In British media reports, ReGen has distanced itself from the spill, calling it a “one-off, extremely unfortunate occurrence,” and saying that the responsibility for unloading belonged to Sprague Energy.

“What needs to happen is for the U.K. to come here, take responsibility and bring it home,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe Sprague is the most culpable. “It’s really ReGen and PERC who are the most to blame. Sprague was hired to offload cargo that was improperly shipped. Now we have a potential violation of ocean dumping laws. I haven’t seen people take this seriously enough, except by people who are concerned about what’s happening.”

Vallette also believes that exporting plastic waste from the U.K. to the U.S. may violate the Basel Convention, an international agreement that establishes standards for the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, solid waste and municipal incinerator ash. The U.S. is not a party to the convention, but the U.K. is.

“My understanding is that they wouldn’t be able to send [exported waste] to an incinerator, because that’s not a prescribed practice in the Basel Convention,” he said.

But Lang disagreed because the material is not considered hazardous, he said, and ReGen is shipping it to other countries in the pact without issue.

“If they were making something they couldn’t ship because of this convention, they wouldn’t be able to ship the material to all of Europe, to be used in plants that burn both refuse and derived fuel,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer, but I know of nothing that would legally cause a problem with this material being shipped.”

Still, Vallette, Nichols and other environmentalists are hoping the Searsport plastic spill will be a wakeup call. Nichols, who wants Maine to pass stronger laws to control the importation of waste, said that companies have built their business model on the state’s weak laws.

“We’ve been trying to fix this for years,” she said. “I think if we didn’t have that accidental spill, I don’t think people would be paying as much attention.”