Recycling and trash management differs greatly for southern Maine towns

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PORTLAND — For every community, trash and recycling are a big deal. Whether the community has curbside pickup, pay-per-bag, carts or a transfer station, each town in Southern Maine does things a little differently. What most of them have in common is the non-profit waste management organization, ecomaine.

At ecomaine, the more trash and recycling that comes through the door, the better.

“We’re getting a lot of good, plentiful trash,” ecomaine Environmental Manager Anne Hewes said.

Hewes oversees the 550 ton-per-day waste-to-energy system that burns trash from ecomaine’s 40 participating municipalities and turns it into electricity.

She is proud of the facility’s ability to reduce the total bulky waste output by 90 percent while generating power to run the company’s other facilities and to sell to back to the grid.

However, burning trash for energy is not where it ends. Ecomaine General Manager Kevin Roche has made it the facility’s goal to increase the amount of recyclables that come through the door.

“The more incentives you offer, the better the recycling rate,” Roche said.

Towns pay $88 per ton to drop off trash at ecomaine. They pay nothing to drop off recycling.

Ecomaine is a non-profit waste management organization that is co-owned by 21 southern Maine municipalities. After trash and recycling are picked up by Pine Tree Waste or other vendors, it is transported to ecomaine for sorting or incineration.

How the best towns recycle

Currently, North Yarmouth, Falmouth and Scarborough have some of the highest recycling rates in the area, at 48 percent, 45 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

When Scarborough moved from using “silver bullet” drop off containers and a transfer station to adding weekly curbside cart pickup, the town’s recycling rate jumped from 19 percent to 35 percent.

“In the long run, it’s the right thing to do, it gets recycling numbers up and it’s what people want,” Scarborough Public Works Director Mike Shaw said.

South Portland also uses the carts and Portland is considering introducing a pilot cart program in two neighborhoods.

Scarborough still maintains its silver bullets at Walmart, Hannaford, the Maine Veterans’ Home and the Dunstan Schoolhouse restaurant.

“We get a lot of tonnage (at the silver bullets) from small businesses and also from condos,” Shaw said.

Shaw said since July 2010, the town has delivered 1,677 tons of recyclables to ecomaine, which has saved $147,576 in fees it would have assessed if that same waste was delivered as trash.

In Yarmouth, where the recycling rate is 29 percent, citizens contract with Pine Tree Waste individually to pick up recycling and solid waste at their curbs. Those who do not have contracts bring their waste and recycling to the transfer station.

Yarmouth Public Works Director Eric Street said as many as 500 residents use Pine Tree Waste’s service and that the town pays the tipping fees at ecomaine for all the trash, whether it comes from curbs or the transfer station.

Going silver bullet-less

Despite having one of the highest recycling rates in the area, Falmouth is considering eliminating its silver bullets at the same time it switches from every other week curbside recycling pickup to weekly pickup.

“We’ve flagged it as something to consider,” Falmouth Public Works Director Jay Reynolds said. “The weekly curbside (pickup) could offset the silver bullets.”

Currently, Reynolds said, the town struggles with people dumping trash and non-recyclable items such as televisions, desks and chairs at the West Falmouth Hannaford silver bullet. He said town employees spend a few hours every Monday and Friday cleaning up around the container and last year two employees were taken to the hospital after inhaling a toxic substance illegally dumped in the bin.

The town could also consider moving the silver bullet to the transfer station, but Reynolds pointed out that would take away from the convenience.

“Obviously, the benefit is that it’s available 24-7 to the residents,” Reynolds said.

In South Portland, where there is weekly curbside recycling and trash pickup, the town has little issue with users of the silver bullets.

“They get a bit messy, but not so bad,” Public Works administrator Denise Michaud said.

She said the most popular silver bullet is located at the town hall, which makes it easier to keep an eye on.

“They’re sort of there as a left-over courtesy from before we had curbside,” Michaud said.

South Portland’s recycling rate went up from 22 percent before curbside pickup, to 27 percent, which also cut its yearly bulky waste disposal by more than 1,200 tons.

A 2008 survey of users of the West Falmouth silver bullet found that, while a majority were from Falmouth, 20 percent were from Portland.

Reynolds said the containers are there for residents only, but that there currently is not any signage to indicate that.

“It isn’t spelled out that non-residents shouldn’t be using it,” he said.

In South Portland, Michaud said during the summer people come across the Casco Bay Bridge from Portland on recycling day and dump their recycling in people’s bins.

“It happened often last summer,” Michaud said.

But, she added, the town doesn’t mind the extra recycling.

“Non-residents dumping recycling is a non-issue,” she said. “We don’t get charged for recycling.”

Processing recyclables

At ecomaine, the recyclable processing plant takes the piles of recyclables from all the communities and separates them using a variety of automated and manual techniques.

To sort number 1 plastics, or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, a machine shines an infrared light that recognizes PET and then shoots an air blast to send the bottles popping into another container, like popcorn.

Then workers sort the rest of the plastics, numbers 2-7, into containers.

A moving screen tilted at a 45-degree angle sorts newspaper from heavier paper, a set of widely spaced gears sorts large cardboard from everything else.

Ecomaine sells approximately 94 percent of the 35,000 tons of recyclables that come in the sorting center door each year, to recycling facilities around the world. Small things like bottle caps, can labels and food scraps stuck to cans or bottles, as well as unrecyclable materials, make up the last 6 percent, and are discarded or deducted from the sale prices.

General Manager Roche said the organization always tries to find local buyers, such as a paper recycling facility in Haverill, Mass. or a cardboard recycling facility in Solvay, N.Y., both of which are currently buying recyclables from the Portland facility.

Some of the recyclables are purchased by facilities in China and shipped out of ports in New York and Boston.

Roche suggests towns do everything they can to incentivize recycling, including weekly curbside recycling pickup, pay-per-bag trash and large carts for recyclables.

“The more incentives you offer, the better the recycling rate,” he said.

Pay-per-bag trash as incentive

A recent effort to bring pay-per-bag trash to Cape Elizabeth was so unpopular it was dropped as an option. In North Yarmouth, a pay per bag curbside pickup was adopted in 2008, which not only saved the town money, but helped increase the recycling rate from 12 percent in 2005 to 48 percent in 2010.

Street said Yarmouth has considered using a pay-per-bag trash system, but that the concept has been very unpopular.

“A lot of communities around us have pay-per-bag,” Street said, “but historically Yarmouth has not been supportive of that.”

Stuart Axelrod, the southern Maine marketing area manager for Pine Tree Waste, which does trash pick-up for most communities in southern Maine, said providing two large carts, one for recycling, one for trash, to residents is as effective as pay-per-bag trash and can also save towns money.

“Our trucks have an automated arm, like a robot,” Axelrod said. “One truck picks up both carts.”

The cart system allows Pine Tree Waste to use only one employee operating one truck to service a large area, saving the cost of a second employee, which the company needs to service pay-per-bag towns.

“Auto-arms really are the best trucking option available today. The only thing they don’t do is create a revenue stream,” Axelrod said.

Axelrod said, at the end of the day, every town is different and that communities need to weigh a number of issues, including the town’s history, population, topography and other concerns, when deciding what works best for them.

Burning garbage for electricity

Despite the increase in recycling rates by most ecomaine communities over the past few years, the non-profit still maintains a 14-megawatt per day electricity generating facility using the 168,000 tons of trash that comes through the door per year.

“We always want to have a certain amount of trash, but recycling and waste energy are compatible,” Hewes said.

Ecomaine isn’t just burning trash in a big can in the back yard. The organization has a variety of highly technical devices in place to prevent toxins such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the trash from getting into the air. Staying well below Environmental Protection Agency limits, the company maintains a rigorous monitoring system and does an annual stack test of the plant’s emissions.

Trash is burned to heat water, which turns to steam and then turns an electricity-generating turbine. The leftover scrap metal that is separated out during the burn is sold, and the remaining ash is transported to the landfill to be buried. There, near several wetlands and the Long Creek watershed, the cleaned ash settles and sinks into the lined ground.

“It’s not now, but maybe someday it could be reused in road construction or something,” Hewes said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or

Sidebar Elements

Workers sort paper at the recycling processing center at ecomaine in Portland.

An ecomaine employee controls a giant hydraulic “clam shell” that can lift up to two tons of trash from a pile below into the hopper that feeds the incinerators.

Baled newspapers sorted for recycling are piled at ecomaine in Portland. The papers will be shipped out to a recycling facility to be turned back into paper.