Waste reduction is 'like a religion' for Chebeague Island faithful
CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Laura Summa is passionate about solid waste.
That's her mantra, or her tagline. It's funny, and she knows it. She also means it.
It's what possesses Summa, a true Jill-of-all-trades, to visit the transfer station in the dead of winter and shovel a path through the snow to a 64-square-foot shed filled with empty beer, wine and soda bottles.
The shed is the home base for Chedemption, a recycling program that reduces the island's waste and waste disposal costs, and benefits Chebeague's 14 non-profit organizations.
Summa took over the operation about three years ago. She enlists volunteers to assist her, but she feels very much at home in that shed, sorting and counting bottles and packing them for shipping.
"This is like a religion to me," Summa said, only half joking. "It's very meditative. People think I've lost my mind."
The seeds of Chedemption were planted in the mid-1990s, when Sanford Doughty, a fisherman and Chebeague Island legend, began collecting recyclables from the Chebeague Inn and elsewhere and redeeming them on the mainland to help fund a community skating pond on his land.
Doughty, who died last year at 93, installed lights over the pond and built an adjacent shack with a fireplace, benches, and everything you could ever want for a pickup hockey game: sticks, helmets, gloves, goals, skates, sharpeners. To this day, Chebeague kids flock there to play when they get out of school on cold winter days.
Around 2000, when Doughty bowed out of the recyclables game, a group of islanders led by Mac Passano and his wife, Beth Howe, took over the project, gave it the name Chedemption, and brought it under the auspices of the Island Council. They agreed to expand collection and divide the profits evenly between Chebeague's nonprofits, including Sanford's Pond.
"There's a tremendous amount of volunteerism on the island, so something like Chedemption was kind of a natural," said Howe, a retired professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin, where her husband also taught.
Chedemption soon had a sorting shed, staffed several days a week, at the transfer station, and later a trailer used to cart the recyclables to the Chandler Cove pier. Once a week, the Casco Bay Lines ferry service transports the material, free of charge, to Portland, where the East End Redemption waste management company picks it up, redeems it for cash, and mails a check to the Island Council.
Chebeague resident Nancy Hill bakes cinnamon buns every week for the Casco Bay Lines workers.
"We're trying to make sure no one's taken for granted," Summa said.
On average, Chedemption recycles roughly 150,000 containers a year, netting more than $7,000, and distributing more than $500 annually to each of the island's nonprofits. But it's greatest economic impact, yet unmeasured, is likely its reduction of the town's waste stream; Chebeague pays by weight for all the trash that's removed from the island.
Summa said it's important for the program to begin tracking the weight of its recyclables and the savings they represent for Chebeague.
"You're not going to appeal to everybody's environmental conscience," she said. "I've heard people say, 'No one's going to tell me I have to recycle. Who the hell do you think you are?' Some people don't believe there's really a benefit to recycling, or they think it's a huge hassle to have more than one container in their kitchen.
"But I think everyone here is concerned about their taxes."
During the summer, each nonprofit takes a turn manning the Chedemption shed for one week. When the council considered shuttering the program during the winter months, Summa stepped up and took over with help from a few volunteers.
Now Summa wants to increase awareness of the program and of better waste practices in general.
"As I learn more about what goes into landfills, it disturbs me," she said. "It's made me realize how important it is that we reduce our waste and our waste stream. So I'd love to work on an outreach education program. People have a lot of questions. There's a lot of misinformation about what you can and can't do."
She's starting with Chebeague's children.
Summa, who holds a graduate degree in business management and works as a property manager, also serves as Chebeague Island School's lunch lady and custodian (she prefers the titles food service director and facilities manager). In addition to cooking homemade soups, stews, casseroles and quiche, some made with produce grown on school grounds, she teaches students about reducing waste and taking care of the environment.
The school has 32 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She has them down to one bag of trash per week.
"We compost very aggressively," said Summa, who keeps scrap buckets for neighbors' chickens and pigs. "As soon as they get me hand dryers, we'll be close to zero waste."
Summa grew up in Lexington, Mass. She and her husband Geoff, a carpenter, moved to Chebeague more than 20 years ago and raised their children on the island.
She said she doesn't want to be known as "the crazy trash woman," but she has enjoyed the opportunity to work with neighbors on projects that improve the town's environmental health and could serve as models for other small communities.
"If there are 40,000 people in your town, you don't really know what kind of an impact you're having," she said. "It's great to live in a place where you can see the results of your energy and efforts immediately."