Laura and Harry Sanborn live on a plot of land that has been in Laura’s family for more than 100 years on Bennoch Road in Alton. She’s the seventh generation of her family to call it home.
The Sanborns have watched their trash-filled neighbor grow since it settled across the street in the 1990s. They’ve watched their neighborhood shrink as their neighbor, the Juniper Ridge Landfill, bought up much of the abutting properties.
Juniper Ridge opened in 1993 solely to collect waste from the nearby mill in Old Town. But over the years, the landfill’s mission has changed and so has the waste that’s gone in it.
From the end of the Sanborns’ driveway, one can see the entrance to the landfill. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the road in front of their house is a near-constant stream of large trucks rumbling by to drop off their loads of household trash, Laura Sanborn said.
The region’s over-reliance on an unproven technology to process residents’ trash has made the Sanborns’ living situation almost unbearable.
After seven months, the machines inside a state-of-the-art trash processing facility in Hampden came to a halt in 2020. They have yet to restart. Instead, much of the trash from more than 100 Maine communities has been going to the landfill just outside the Sanborns’ home.
What’s more, new data show that instead of revolutionizing the way communities in Maine process garbage, the multimillion dollar trash plant only met its recycling goals twice in the short time it was operating.
The sound of trucks wakes up the Sanborns in the morning. The smell of rotting trash forces them to keep their windows shut and avoid spending time in the backyard, Harry Sanborn said.
Harry Sanborn points to his “library” of reports about the activities at the Juniper Ridge Landfill, just across the way from his home, Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN
“You used to be able to be in your home and have the window open. You’d hear the whip-poor-wills. They would wake you up in the morning,” Laura Sanborn said. “Now we live confined to the inside because of truck noise, truck odors, trash odors, you know, especially in the summer.”
It’s all because one group took a risk.
Nearly 10 years ago, a nonprofit called the Municipal Review Committee brought an expensive technology to Maine to transform how its 115 member communities — from Wiscasset in the south to Smyrna in the north — processed waste. It picked a company in 2014 called Fiberight, founded by Craig Stuart-Paul, that promised to run a plant that diverted trash away from landfills or incineration, the two least favorable waste processing options in the state. Instead it would pull out recyclables to be sold, turn organic material into biofuel and condense plastic garbage into fuel pellets.
So far it hasn’t worked. After multiple delays in starting the Hampden facility, it operated for less than a year before it shut down in 2020. Almost three years later, it has yet to start back up.
Without the waste processing facility, which outside investors backed with nearly $100 million, more trash is being sent to landfills than ever before. The Municipal Review Committee’s gamble with Fiberight has also delayed the state in reaching its recycling goals. As Maine’s few landfills rapidly fill, the group continues to falter at finding a new financier to fund a restart.
Files about Juniper Ridge Landfill line the top of a shelf of Harry and Laura Sanborns’ garage, Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN
For those who believed at the outset that Fiberight was too risky, it has still been upsetting to see their predictions — of an idle trash plant, the near elimination of recycling and more waste going to landfills — come true.
“I was counting on the [Maine Department of Environmental Protection], which, of course, was under the LePage administration at that time, to reject [Fiberight’s] permits based on data, sound reasoning and regulations that were already in place,” said Sarah Nichols, a waste policy expert at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“And then, ultimately, they ignored all of the red flags and all the warning signs for this completely preventable, foreseeable disaster.”
The department did not respond to a request for comment.
Nichols, who has been with the organization focused on protecting Maine’s environment for nearly a decade, approached the Municipal Review Committee’s idea for a facility that would use different parts of the waste stream for different purposes with an open mind, she said.
“I wanted to try to like it,” she said. “I started from that place. I put in the time and the conversations. I did research about mixed waste processing facilities and thought about how it might affect Maine. I had to have a kind of a difficult conversation with them and be like, ‘You know, I like you. I think your heart’s in the right place, but we have to be opposed to this facility.’”
After she reviewed what little test data were available and dug into the process, she said she found the technology was too unproven to result in better recycling rates for her organization to support. She raised concerns about the lack of clear and direct funding available and inconsistent data from Fiberight’s testing facility in Virginia.
“They were saying that they had a plant in Iowa that they didn’t. They’d failed to get approval there. And then there was a test plant in Virginia,” she said. “It didn’t provide the data to suggest that they would ever achieve higher than a 42.8 percent diversion rate.”
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The state required the Hampden facility to recycle or divert 50 percent of the materials that came through its doors. But the Municipal Review Committee predicted the facility would recycle even more: 60 to 80 percent. It touted those numbers to lawmakers, concerned residents and environmental advocates like Nichols.
But the facility only reached a recycling rate at or above 50 percent twice in the time it operated, according to reports filed with the state by the Municipal Review Committee that were recently made public.
‘A disaster for this region’
Fiberight’s history is mired in conflict. Its first attempt to operate a facility in the United States, in Iowa, didn’t pan out. Instead it resulted in Stuart-Paul, the company’s CEO and founder, signing a consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after chemicals leaked from the facility, violating federal environmental law, according to EPA records.
Despite data that show the Hampden facility consistently underperformed, aside from two months, officials with the Municipal Review Committee defend the technology.
“We did a performance test on it, and that performance test was successful. Like any new operation — this is a brand new $80 million operation — it had its bottlenecks, and it had its quirks in certain areas,” said Michael Carroll, the Municipal Review Committee’s executive director.
In the months before the facility shut down, the recycling rate did increase before dropping off again in 2020. In November 2019, the first month the facility was fully operational, it recycled 40 percent of its trash, followed by 62 percent in December. In January 2020 it achieved a 55.2 percent recycling rate.
But the facility reached its highest recycling rate that December in part because it sent a larger portion of its waste than the previous month to a landfill to be used to cover it up at the end of the day. Despite going to a landfill as alternative daily cover, it counted as diversion and recycling in Maine.
The Municipal Review Committee has blamed the facility’s problems in part on the state not approving a special permit to allow the plant to sell some of the products it had intended to make from the trash.
Fiberight declined an interview with the Bangor Daily News, but in a statement it defended its technology and blamed the facility’s closure on new sources of funding being pulled at the last minute.
Bill Lippincott, a Hampden resident with a passion for waste issues, remains skeptical.
“What’s happened is a disaster for this region because almost every single town gave up their recycling program,” he said. “There were lots of towns that were recycling before Fiberight. And most of them gave up.”
Back when the Municipal Review Committee announced it was going with Fiberight, Lippincott and others dug into the technology and researched the company’s history. They didn’t like what they saw, Lippincott said.
“What they landed on is an unproven, untested process at this scale,” he said. “There was no plant anywhere else in the world that was doing what they thought they could pull off in Hampden.”
Those deficiencies were well noted not just by individuals and environmental activists but the Maine Legislature’s environment and natural resources committee. When the Maine Department of Environmental Protection evaluated whether or not to issue the Hampden facility a permit, the legislative committee wrote a letter advising the state not to approve the facility.
Similarly, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., which had incinerated the Municipal Review Committee’s waste for 30 years, mounted a legal challenge against the facility. In court documents filed in 2016, PERC argued there was insufficient evidence to prove that Fiberight’s technology would work and that the potential harm to Maine’s waste management landscape outweighed the possible technical advances the technology could provide.
“Even more importantly, if the project fails to come online by the projected date, which scenario appears likely, or at all, the impacted municipalities will be forced to landfill their solid waste for the foreseeable future,” PERC’s lawyers wrote in their challenge to the Hampden facility.
And that’s exactly what happened.
With the Hampden facility shut down, 115 communities’ garbage and recycling had to go somewhere. Since the facility opened in 2019, 425,367 tons of waste has been sent to either Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock, Juniper Ridge Landfill in Alton, or PERC in Orrington, according to annual reports produced by the Municipal Review Committee.
In January, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection published a report that cites the shuttering of the Hampden facility as a key reason why the state is behind in meeting its recycling goals.
The Municipal Review Committee has defended the facility. Karen Fussell, the committee’s president and Brewer’s finance director, said there’s a clear need for the trash plant in the region.
“The real issue and concern is that this region needs a waste processing facility. If it doesn’t have a waste processing facility, it’s all going to landfill,” Fussell said. “I don’t think that’s what anybody really wants.”