Trash piles up at the Hatch Hill landfill in Augusta, where officials project the facility only has room for about five years-worth of additional rubbish. Credit: Susan Cover / Spectrum News

The municipal landfill at Hatch Hill in Augusta will likely be full in five years, prompting the city to consider whether to pile the trash higher, ship it out of the city or find another solution.

The regional facility, which serves eight surrounding towns in addition to Augusta, sits on 450 acres on the outskirts of the city.

“We’re working on a solution,” said Augusta Public Works Director Lesley Jones. “We’re not in a crisis situation. It’s just time to get moving on it.”

The possible ripple effect on other cities and towns that pay to have their trash dumped at Hatch Hill is already prompting at least one city to consider alternatives. Gardiner is reactivating a committee to consider whether there might be another facility able to take their trash, if the city can do something locally or whether Gardiner residents can help extend the life of Hatch Hill, said interim City Manager Anne Davis.

“There’s not a lot of options,” she said. “It’s not just Hatch Hill. It’s a problem throughout the state and the country.”

That was the conclusion of a September report released by U.S. Public Interest Research Group that found the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a setback for waste reduction efforts across the country.

The Hatch Hill landfill serves Augusta and eight surrounding towns. Credit: Susan Cover / Spectrum News

“The pandemic turned the world upside-down and trampled waste reduction efforts,” said Alex Truelove, co-author of the report called Trash in America. “For a time, single-use plastic shopping bags returned to supermarkets and disposable takeout food containers and packaging from online shopping flooded the waste stream.”

On a more positive note, the report also says that four states have banned plastic bags in the last year and that Maine passed the country’s first law requiring companies to help cover the cost to recycle packaging. A plastic bag ban also went into effect in Maine on July 1.

The report states that one-third of U.S. waste is compostable and more than half could be reused or recycled.

Unlike in Augusta, where the city provides curbside garbage removal, in Gardiner and in many surrounding towns, residents hire a local trash hauler to pick up their garbage and take it to Hatch Hill, Davis said. Gardiner residents can choose among five or six companies, which may also face increased costs if Hatch Hill closes and the garbage needs to be hauled farther away, she said.

In Chelsea, town manager Scott Tilton said they too are thinking about alternatives, including creating their own transfer station or curbside garbage collection.

“We’re kind of waiting for Augusta to see what they do,” he said. “Five years is not a lot of time. We’re hoping Augusta will include Chelsea in what they decide to do.”

As Augusta thinks about possibilities, it will look to Portland engineering firm Woodard & Curran to provide options. The city has asked the firm to study the issue and report back in mid-November.

At a council meeting in August, Randy Tome, a senior project manager at the firm, outlined some preliminary possibilities, including asking the state Department of Environmental Protection for permission to go up 60 feet in height. If the city goes that route, it could probably get another 12 years out of the site, he said.

Other options include closing the landfill and building a transfer station so waste could be hauled elsewhere. The city could also consider privatizing rubbish removal by hiring a company such as Waste Management or Casella Waste Systems, he said.

Council member Michael Michaud said he hopes the city can take a long-term view of what’s best rather than only considering how much more time it can squeeze out of Hatch Hill.

“I just want to make sure the vision is not only for the next 10 years or 20 years,” he said. “So we’re not leaving the next generation with a bigger problem than we have now.”

Jones said in the last 10 years, the city has seen an increase in the amount of waste coming to the facility. She said trash is a sign of economic success and during the pandemic, more people got government stimulus payments and did home improvements, which generated more waste. Add to that personal protective equipment and extra cleaning supplies and there’s more trash at the landfill, she said.

“The planning process is going to take a couple of years and then you’re going to have to build what you are going to do,” she said.

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