Waste at the Coastal Resources of Maine facility in Hampden is carried toward a trommel, which separates materials by size and weight. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Bill Lippincott and Ed Spencer are co-chairs of Don’t Waste ME.

The Municipal Review Committee, the group that oversees solid waste management for 115 towns throughout Maine, has a historic chance to improve Maine’s failing recycling system. It should take advantage of that opportunity.

This opportunity arose from the difficulties the committee is having in restarting the fraught Coastal Resources of Maine facility, which was supposed to revolutionize waste management for the state. It was recently announced that needed financing was not forthcoming, so the Hampden plant will continue to sit idle. An exclusivity arrangement for a potential partnership with Revere Capital Advisors ended Jan. 31 without a purchase contract or timeline for reopening the facility.

Here’s how we got here. In 1991, 180 Maine member towns came together in an association, called the Municipal Review Committee, to manage their waste and to give communities leverage with the then-new PERC waste-to-energy incinerator in Orrington. But with the end of federal subsidies for waste energy electricity in 2018, the committee decided to go in a different direction. A new affiliation was formed with Coastal Resources of Maine to process waste at its Hampden plant with technology that has yet to perform successfully anywhere to the scale required by the represented towns.

Operations with Coastal Resources commenced in April 2019 but equipment failures and rising costs shuttered the facility in May 2020. Since that time, waste from the Municipal Review Committee’s communities has been diverted primarily to Juniper Ridge and Crossroads landfills and the PERC incinerator when not faced with down time due to maintenance and repair.

This has put a strain on the state’s waste management hierarchy, which prioritizes waste reduction, reuse, recycling, composting and volume reduction with landfilling being the option of last resort. The committee’s situation was cited in the recent Department of Environmental Protection report for calendar years 2020-2021 on municipal waste generation and disposal capacity.

The committee acquired ownership of the Hampden waste processing facility in July 2022. At that time, Municipal Waste Solutions LLC was formed to operate the plant.

As the committee looks for a new operator of the Hampden facility, this is an opportunity to move forward with increased participation from member communities and their residents with a focus on genuine recycling that reclaims valuable resources to produce marketable commodities to create a profitable system. The U.S. recycling end markets are starting to form. The Municipal Review Committee should find a way to use the existing sorting processes at the Hampden plant to separate recyclables so they can be sold at profit. In Vermont, the Chittenden Solid Waste District made more than $3 million in 2021 — a 115 percent increase.

Conceivably investors can be found to reopen the plant who are willing to join with Municipal Review Committee members and be involved with proven waste processing methods. A properly run facility that focuses on recycling, with reduction and diversion of waste from disposal, would give incentives for members to remain and should encourage increased membership and investment.

The Municipal Review Committee and new owner of the plant can assist members in developing infrastructure to create a minimum of waste for disposal: separating organics, recyclables and trash. Clean, unpackaged organics and yard debris can be processed in the existing anaerobic digester allowing the digestate to be used as a valuable soil amendment without contamination from heavy metals, PFAS and other chemicals of concern. This would provide another revenue stream. We believe the priority should be initially to use the current digester to cut down on costs. Once employing source separated organics and determining the total volume, it may make sense to explore composting.  

We’ve learned difficult lessons about how not to process waste over the last 20 years, but there are common-sense solutions that we can bring to Maine resulting in less waste to landfills and incinerators — a win for our health and our planet

Don’t Waste ME is a citizen group working for waste policy that gives communities increased local control, incorporates zero waste goals and protects the health and environment of communities most affected by waste facilities. The group is asking the Municipal Review Committee’s board and member towns to see this as an opportunity to move forward in a new direction for managing how waste is processed and disposed. The committee and potential new owners should take advantage of this opportunity to move forward successfully and sustainably with increased participation from member communities and their residents.