The Working Waterfront

Cleaning up our mess means being bold, practical

As Maine plans for climate fixes, trash wars should inform

Tom Groening
Posted 2021-03-08
Last Modified 2021-03-08

The story horrified me. It hit close to home—literally. And it angered many, some demanding action be taken at the public policy level.

The story, broken in mid-December by Ethan Andrews, editor of the Camden-based Free Press, reported that some bales of shredded plastic waste had apparently fallen off a ship from Northern Ireland calling at Mack Point in Searsport. The bales were discovered on the shore of Sears Island, a half mile away.

And the waste, believe it or not, was the cargo, not shipboard trash. It was destined for the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington, where it would be incinerated to make electricity (hence the “energy recovery”).

The most recent numbers, for 2016, show the state’s recycling rate is at 36.7 percent.

Ethan, an eloquent writer and reporter with a nose for stories with impact, first reported the arrival of the ship in the Free Press. A man from nearby Stockton Springs, walking along the Sears Island shore a few days later, spotted the bales and put two and two together and contacted Andrews.

My wife and I are fond of walking around the island on the shore; it’s about five miles. The Friends of Sears Island group has done a wonderful job creating trails, overlooks, and historic markers. The island is a wonderful natural resource, but bales of plastic trash shouldn’t be washing ashore anywhere.

The incident pulls back the curtain on a dirty reality—we never really solved the solid waste crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those living here then will remember the urgency that came as state environmental law required closing landfills. The refuse those landfills held included dead batteries, used motor oil, diapers, and old paint, which of course eventually leached into ground water.

State government set ambitious—maybe unrealistically ambitious—recycling goals. Towns and cities opened recycling centers, and people became versed in the differences between No. 2 and No. 5 plastic, between corrugated cardboard and fiberboard.

Slowly, markets for recycled material emerged and grew. But recycling rates leveled off. In 1989, a goal of recycling 50 percent of municipal solid waste was established. The most recent numbers, for 2016, show the state’s recycling rate is at 36.7 percent.

I believe it’s possible to increase recycling levels, but more needs to be done on the supply side. An admittedly anecdotal observation: there seems to be more plastic packaging in grocery stores, even for organic produce, than ever before. Some cities and towns passed ordinances banning grocery store plastic bags—which generally aren’t recyclable—but since the pandemic, the major chains have returned to using them, and those ordinances have been suspended.

Much municipal recycling has gone to “single sort,” which eliminates the need to know your cardboard from your fiberboard. It’s like the recycling version of airbags vs. seatbelts, moving recycling from intention to technology.

After decades-long contracts with trash-to-energy incinerators, many towns have turned to companies that take on recyclables and trash, and extract commodities from the latter.

Pre-COVID, much of U.S. recyclables were sold to China, but those markets were upset with the trade wars. Which brings us back to plastic trash washing up on our shores. Those trash incinerators still need BTU-rich fuel to burn, and so they are importing it. From places like Northern Ireland.

The response all those years ago to the trash crisis holds lessons for the state’s response to climate change. The Maine Climate Council’s recommendations will be shaped by the legislature this session. A key lesson is that goals must be practical and attainable and should not rely on good intentions.

Another recent state crisis response should inform the climate action. In 2008, when gasoline and heating fuel prices hit $4.50 a gallon, the Baldacci administration pushed for and won legislation that allowed wind turbine projects to get fast-track approval. Those turbines are producing carbon-free electricity now, but you only get one chance to make a first impression, and some of the projects, by virtue of being too close to homes, gave it a black eye.

So as state government begins crafting a bold, comprehensive plan to reduce our carbon pollution—as well it should—it should consider these lessons. An image that cheers me when I see or read about it is an array of photovoltaic panels on top of a closed landfill. It’s a monument to never again being so irresponsible with our waste, and an embracing of a new way to power our world.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront.