Communities in the Bangor area and elsewhere that dropped local recycling programs ahead of the start of a new waste facility in Hampden haven’t brought those programs back, and appear unlikely to, even as the plant has remained closed for more than a year and a half.
That means that years after a new waste plant promised to remove recyclables from loads of trash and prevent more of the area’s waste from ending up in landfills, many of the communities that opted to send their waste there are left with virtually no recycling. All of their waste in the meantime — trash and recyclables — is going either to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Orrington or to landfills.
A number of communities stopped their separate recycling collection in 2018 and 2019 as a depressed global market for recyclables sent collection and processing costs skyrocketing, and as the towns awaited the opening of the Coastal Resources of Maine plant in Hampden.
But the plant’s start, originally expected in 2018, was repeatedly delayed. Then it ran commercially for about six months before it shut down in May 2020, unable to pay its bills.
The bondholders that funded the plant’s construction and the Municipal Review Committee, the group that represents the 115 towns and cities that signed up to send their waste to Coastal Resources, have been working to sell the plant since then, but no sale or reopening is imminent.
Still, communities that stopped recycling are staking their hopes of reviving the practice on a new buyer coming in and restarting the Coastal Resources of Maine plant.
“I toured the plant while it was in operation and found it to be very efficient with a high rate of recycling,” said Michele Daniels, the mayor of Brewer, which stopped its separate recycling collection in 2019. “Financially, to restart a separate curbside [recycling program], or create a drop-off area, is not feasible at this time.”
Communities have the option of resurrecting recycling programs, but the cost would outweigh the benefit in Bangor, said Aaron Huotari, the city’s public works director and a Municipal Review Committee board member.
That leaves a restart of the Hampden plant as towns’ and cities’ best hope for recycling again, he said.
“The fact is that even while it was being mismanaged, it worked. We showed that it would work,” Huotari said. “Getting that up and running, I think, is the answer.”
When Bangor picked up recycling curbside, recyclables only amounted to about 8 percent of the city’s total waste, he said.
“This 8 percent number we hit was because we couldn’t get people to buy into the concept of pulling their recyclables out and separating them, and doing it well,” he said.
Currently, Bangor only offers cardboard recycling, but no curbside pickup, Huotari said. Residents have to bring their broken-down boxes to dumpsters behind the public works building on Maine Avenue.
Other Bangor-area towns using the Coastal Resources plant that dropped recycling included Clifton, Dedham, Eddington, Hampden and Holden. In addition to the Bangor area, the 115 towns that used the plant included communities in Aroostook and Piscataquis counties, Down East, the Wiscasset and Augusta areas, and the midcoast.
The lack of recycling right now in such a large swath of the state makes it less likely Maine will reach its more than 30-year-old goal of a 50 percent recycling rate, said Sarah Nichols, who leads waste reduction and recycling efforts for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“It’s a disaster,” Nichols said. “We don’t know how to assist towns and what to do next.”
Nichols and the Natural Resources Council of Maine were cautious years ago when towns were deciding whether to send their waste to the then-proposed Coastal Resources plant. Years later, Nichols said the dearth of recycling among those communities is disappointing.
“This is my least favorite ‘I told you so’ moment ever,” she said. “It’s kind of like an ‘all the eggs in one basket’ [situation]. If this facility doesn’t work, and if you send all your waste, recycling, composting, everything to this one place and it doesn’t work, you have put yourself in a pickle and you’re not doing anything good for the environment.”
Last year, Gov. Janet Mills signed a first-of-its-kind measure into law that shifts the costs of recycling product packaging to the manufacturers of those products. Those producers will pay into a fund whose proceeds will then be available to communities to cover recycling costs and pay for new recycling programs.
But it is unclear if many of the 115 communities tied to the Coastal Resources plant will be eligible for those funds given the current rarity of recycling, according to Nichols.
“I just feel bad for these towns,” Nichols said. “I don’t know what to advise them to do.”
Not every community using the new Hampden plant stopped recycling, however. Orono, for example, decided against adopting the “one bin, all in” approach many of its neighbors embraced.
Orono “decided that although the plant was operating and doing a great job with recycling that we really wanted to see some long-term success before we changed our recycling program,” Town Manager Sophie Wilson said.
When Coastal Resources first opened, Orono brought its separated recyclables to that plant, which accepted already separated recyclables at a discounted rate from loads of trash.
Now, with the facility closed, the town is still collecting recycling from single-family homes and multi-unit properties with four or fewer units, said Wilson, who also serves on the Municipal Review Committee board. But rather than going to nearby Hampden, the town’s recyclables go to a Casella processing facility two hours away in Lewiston, she said.
“When the plant shut down, we did talk about the fact that it was four times the price” to recycle, Wilson said. “But in our community, we felt like it was really important to maintain that commitment to recycling. For us, the additional cost made sense, as it is one of the community’s core values.”
Wilson said the town has used funds from the sale of its share of the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., or PERC, incinerator to cover recycling costs.