Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trash Talk

I live in the small town of Woolwich, Maine with a population of around 3000 people.  Our town is managed by half a dozen selectmen and women, and we meet annually in the school gym to vote on the annual budget for the town.  In recent years our town has been hotly debating how to manage waste and recycling.  Since our town is equally divided between what can best be described as ignorant rednecks and liberal progressives, the debate can be quite lively.

The issue of how to encourage more recycling has been on the table for years.  Our recycle to waste ratio is about 25% recycled which is pathetic compared to most other local towns that recycle 50 to 60% of their waste.  A few years ago we voted to institute a Pay As You Throw program in which you had to buy bright orange labeled bags from the town in order to be able to put trash out at the curb for pickup.  The bags sold for $1 each and this so thoroughly pissed off one local that he petitioned for a special town vote to repeal this program because he felt it was punitive to those with low incomes.  His shortsighted thinking did not acknowledge that this program would save the town over $80,000 a year and thus reduce our property taxes.  However his petition passed due to a very vocal minority at the meeting and the program was canceled after three months.  The program was wildly successful during the three months that it operated and our recycling rate went from 25% to over 45%.  The moment the town stopped using the bags again recycling dropped back down to below 30%.  I am often embarrassed to be a resident of this town for reasons like this.

On the bright side, we do have mixed stream curbside recycling.  This means that we can dump anything recyclable into a bin and leave it at the curb.  It is picked up and sent to EcoMaine - a nonprofit facility that is co-owned by several local towns.  There they sort and separate the plastic, glass, paper, cardboard etc. into bundles that can be sold.  My personal ratio is about 60% recycling 40% trash by weight, and I believe my ratio is improving this year but I stopped weighing my trash bins at the end of 2016.

EcoMaine furnace
The good news is that we have now opted to send our trash to a Waste-to-Energy furnace that is also operated by EcoMaine.  The furnace produces steam to drive an electric generator.  The power produced is sold to offset some of EcoMaine operating costs.  The ash from the furnace is screened for metals and is then sent to a landfill owned by EcoMaine.  So ultimately the amount of waste that is landfilled from our town is very small.  The problem is that a lot of recyclable materials are being burned due to the laziness of our local rednecks.  

I remember touring a recycling sorting facility in Massachusetts many years ago and noticed that all of the glass no matter what color was crushed and dumped into a bin.  I asked the plant operators what happened to that glass.  They said that the aggregate color is a light brown and it is sent to a local Coors bottling plant where they reuse the glass to make beer bottles.  This is just one of the many ways in which recycling operates in a successful way regionally.