Is Single-Stream Recycling an Option to Lower Solid Waste Costs?
Thursday, November 13, 2014 5:04 AM
In Rockland, there are several topics that have the potential to send chairs flying at City Council - zoning, property taxes and the dump among them. In recent months, Rockland residents have been locked in a vigorous debate over the costs of municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal. In July, in an attempt to cut down on those costs and encourage recycling, the City Council passed an ordinance that would have required residents to pay a fee for each bag of trash and would discontinue the $135 per-year flat sticker fee that allows people to throw away as much as they want. But after a citizen repeal of that ordinance passed in a landslide last week, pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) efforts are off the table, certainly at least for the forseeable future, considering this is the second time a council's PAYT ordinance was repealed by Rockland residents; the first time was in 2006.
Workers monitor items at EcoMaine’s single-stream recycling plant in Portland. (Photos courtesy of EcoMaine)
In the meantime, city officials are looking at other options to reduce disposal costs, such as single-stream recycling (AKA single-sort). This would give residents the convenience of throwing all of their recyclables - glass, paper, metal, and cardboard - into one bin to be separated out later by machines, rather than requiring users to self-sort. But if nothing is done, solid-waste experts say that costs will continue to rise.
"We're spending more of our resources, twice as much as we spent 20 years ago, to send our trash to a landfill," said John Campbell, a waste solutions consultant with the company Waste Zero. "Unless you stop that trend line, it will continue to happen in Rockland just as it's happened for the last 10 years."
As Campbell noted, Maine has the highest tipping fees for MSW disposal in the United States, second only to Hawaii. Currently, Rockland pays about $77 per ton to bring its 5,104 tons of annual MSW to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company (PERC) in Orrington where it is incinerated to make electricity. However, due to the expiration of a lucrative 30-year power-purchasing agreement with Emera Maine, the facility will be forced to sell power at a much lower market price after March 31, 2018. After that, it's estimated that Rockland and other midcoast towns using PERC would see their tipping fees raised by around $45 to $50 per ton. The Municipal Review Committee (MRC), which oversees PERC, is currently working on a proposal to build its own comprehensive waste disposal facility that they claim will incorporate more efficient recycling and waste processing technologies than PERC. The MRC, which owns 75 percent of PERC, is a consortium of 187 towns including Rockland.
However, the MRC suffered a setback in September when the Maine Department of Environmental Protection rejected its application for a landfill for disposing of ash and waste residuals. The organization says it has put the landfill portion of its proposal aside and will be announcing its progress in developing the rest of the plan at its December meeting in Bangor. If no solution is found, the MRC says that towns will be forced to pay private companies to landfill their waste at much higher costs to property tax payers.
Rockland Considers Incentives for Recycling
Solid-waste experts at an informational meeting in Rockland on October 21, emphasized that one of the best ways to bring down MSW costs is simply to take advantage of free recycling programs to divert glass, plastic, metal and paper from the waste stream.
"What we have found is when you recycle one ton of paper you are saving 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, 587 pounds of air pollution, a little over three cubic yards of landfill space, and a little over 4,000 kilowatts of energy," said Lissa Bitterman, business development manager for Portland-based waste company EcoMaine.
Right now, PERC and the MRC don't have a recycling program, so Rockland sells its recyclables to outside bidders through the nonprofit Maine Resource Recovery Association (MRRA), which assists towns with the marketing of recyclables. With the MRRA, Rocklanders are required to self-sort their recyclables at the transfer station. And although the city has a mandatory recycling ordinance, enforcing the law by scrutinizing every bag of trash is simply not feasible. With only a fraction of users abiding by the ordinance, the city's recycling rate is only about 30 percent. Waste experts say there are three ways to incentivize recycling, including PAYT ordinances, curbside recycling pick-up programs, and single-stream recycling. While PAYT is not politically possible in Rockland and curbside recycling is not yet financially feasible, city officials say single-stream recycling could be attainable.
According to Mayor Larry Pritchett, that makes EcoMaine, which has a single-stream recycling component at its waste processing facility, a good potential partner for Rockland to contract with for its recycling and possibly its solid waste. As a result of its comprehensive program, EcoMaine claims to have a recycling rate that's at least 13 to 15 percent higher than Rockland's rate.
The EcoMaine Model
With 20 member communities in the Casco Bay region, the EcoMaine facility includes single-source recycling, as well as a waste-to-energy incinerator to burn MSW and a 260-acre landfill near the Portland Jetport where the leftover ash from the incinerator is disposed of. EcoMaine is governed by a 29-member board with at least one member from each member community. According to Bitterman, the chief benefit of EcoMaine is that it is a municipally owned cooperative that has made providing financial relief to its owner-communities a top priority. As a result, earlier this year EcoMaine was able to rebate $1 million back to its member communities and reduce tipping fees from $88 per ton to $70.50 a ton.
"Their goal is not to make money, but manage their waste in the most responsibly and environmentally friendly way," said Bitterman. "The member municipalities don't want to be gouged and we work very hard to keep the prices low."
According to Rockland Solid Waste Facility Director David St. Laurent, if the city chose to go with EcoMaine for its recycling, it would cost about $400 a load to truck recyclables down to Portland or $250 to $300 if it was compacted on the site first. The transfer station would accommodate the new system by dedicating one side of the current MSW disposal area to all of the recyclables. He noted that currently the city's recycling program is about $76,000 in the red because commercial haulers stopped taking their cardboard to Rockland after the city started charging a fee on cardboard disposal in 2006. He said the city has since tried to lure them back with offers of profit sharing, but has been unsuccessful. He said that without the commercial haulers dropping off their cardboard, the city's recycling rate looks "artificially low."
"Just one hauler brings on about 600 to 700 tons of cardboard to another facility, but brings us all their trash,"said St. Laurent. "We only recycle about 300 tons of cardboard. There's our gap. If we were to have that cardboard and the revenue from that, we'd probably be whole on the recycling end."
If Rockland does adopt a single-stream program, all of the city's mixed recyclables would be brought down to a large warehouse in Portland and dumped onto a conveyor belt for automated separation. In addition to the machines, human beings are also incorporated into the process for quality control.
"We've seen almost everything," said Bitterman. "We get pumpkins, deer heads, guns and every kind of trash you can imagine. We get between 5 to 30 helium and propane tanks and any one of them could blow up."After all of the material is separated, it then gets pushed into a baler that squishes and wraps it into a one-ton bale. Vendors are then called in for the bidding process on the recycled commodities. Number-one plastic containers are then super heated and turned into fleece jackets, T-shirts, jungle gyms, suitcases and kitchen items. New paper, cardboard, bottles and metal items are also produced from recyclables. However, there are a number of items that cannot be recycled with EcoMaine, such as wax paper, bubble wrap, jagged pieces of metal, ceramics, lightbulbs, plastic food bags, sharps, medical waste, rope, garden hoses, refrigerators, air conditioners, Styrofoam and soiled tissues and toilet paper. Other items like E-waste (discarded electronic devices) and clothes can be dropped off at other facilities.
Bitterman said there are two contract options if Rockland did choose to switch its recycling to EcoMaine. One plan would be to share profits with the city from recycling, but Rockland would also share in the pain when the market is down. The second option is revenue neutral, so the city would never lose money, but it would never make money from recycling either. Bitterman said that right now the market is "horrible." St. Laurent offered a nuanced opinion of single-sort recycling.
"The potential benefits to single-sort are lower overhead costs and an easier system for the public," wrote St. Laurent in an email. "The disadvantages are the loss of revenue from recyclables (which is bad when recyclables have a high commodity value) and a less quality product (which is debatable depending on who you talk to)."
St. Laurent added that one of the benefits of EcoMaine is that the organization has a very aggressive education component to the program. However, others were not so convinced. At the informational meeting, Rockland resident David Myslabodski said single-stream may be convenient, but that machine sorting is not the most environmentally friendly solution.
"You cannot come into our community and tell me that single-sort recycling is the way to go because that's what the market holds," said Myslabodski. "That attitude, please take it to California. This is not California. Here in Rockland a lot of people moved here because what we're searching for is quality of life and it's not chasing the buck."
Bitterman admitted that bales of recyclables are much cleaner and free from residue when they are hand-sorted, but more people are likely to use the single-stream program.
"Our world is busy, people don't have a lot of time, and without a doubt, every single time, when single-stream is implemented, recycling rates go up," said Bitterman.
Solid Waste and Composting Options
Bitterman said EcoMaine is also studying the feasibility of implementing a composting system for organic material, which comprises about 40 percent of the waste stream and is not easily incinerated. However, she added that it's an expensive endeavor and won't be a feasible option for another few years. According to Mayor Pritchett, Rockland is in the process of starting its own pilot program for food composting.
"The city has the site and the city has the equipment," said Pritchett. "It's now about talking with restaurants and residents to get it kicked off. The advantage to those folks is it would save money by not spending $135 to send to PERC."
If Rockland does choose the MSW disposal option at EcoMaine, the city's solid waste would be shipped to the Portland waste-to-energy plant, where it would be burned at 2,000ºF and turned into ash, which represents about 10 percent of the volume of the original waste. The steam generated from the 170,000 annual tons of waste burned at the plant is reportedly enough to power over 10,000 homes. The residual ash is then deposited in the landfill, which has enough capacity to last until 2038, according to Bitterman. However, she noted that the organization has hired a company that is currently mining metals from the landfill using a rare-earth magnet. The process has already resulted in freeing up 10 percent more space, said Bitterman.
"The goal of EcoMaine and pretty much all of the waste organizations is to reduce waste in every community possible, so I expect that our landfill will last much longer than 2038," she said.
PAYT: Still a Good Idea?
Both John Campbell of Waste Zero and Bitterman also touted the benefits of pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) as a way to bring down disposal costs. Bitterman estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of customers are motivated to recycle on their own, while 15 and 20 percent are completely unmotivated. They said that even with a single-sort recycling program, recycling volumes only increase by 3 to 5 percent. Without a financial incentive, the majority of people just don't voluntarily recycle. They said that PAYT is also more fair to residents.
"Water, gas and electricity are paid for based on consumption," said Campbell. "There's a fairness around those issues. People who turn off their lights have a lower electricity bill. People who conserve their water have a lower water bill, particularly where water is a scarce resource. In Maine, landfills and burn facilities are a scarce resource."
Campbell noted that because people are not used to PAYT, it's still a tough sell to voters - as has twice been proven in Rockland. People see the fixed "all you can eat" sticker fee as a benefit even though they don't realize it's costing them more in the long run due to higher overall MSW disposal fees. However, Campbell pointed to a 2014 survey by Public Policy Polling of PAYT participants found that 79 percent had a favorable opinion of PAYT while 89 percent said it was effective. He added that of all of the communities that his company has helped transition to PAYT, 100 percent of them are still using the program. Currently, about 31 percent of the population of Maine is using PAYT programs. Bitterman also pointed out that Waterville, which implemented PAYT this year, also experienced a backlash against the program. Around 200 residents even decided to pay for a private hauler to take their trash to avoid paying the fees.
"They were enraged, they were indignant," said Bitterman. "But they're already starting to trickle back because they're starting to see that their self-righteousness about the issue was actually going to cost them more money."
Bitterman and Campbell said that PAYT, along with the curbside recycling program and using the single-sort program at EcoMaine, has reduced Waterville's volume of solid waste by 55 percent. Still, others at the meeting were unconvinced. PAYT repeal organizer Adele Faber said it was unfair that commercial haulers, which account for 65 percent of waste disposed of at the transfer station, are not required to recycle.
Mayor Pritchett pointed out that commercial haulers do, in fact, recycle cardboard, but they just don't recycle it in Rockland. Pritchett also dismissed the argument that commercial haulers are not paying for their fair share of MSW costs, stating that the fees do reflect the true costs of trucking and tipping fees. Another resident expressed concerns that PAYT would lead to illegal dumping, but Campbell said there's little evidence to suggest that happens with any frequency.
"In no community have we ever seen a dramatic increase in illegal dumping," said Campbell. "It is fear. It is an unfounded fear, and I don't believe it would happen in Rockland, just as it hasn't happened in other places."
But despite rational arguments for the policy, given the now two successful repeal efforts, Rockland City Council certainly won't be revisiting PAYT any time soon. Meanwhile, Pritchett said the next step will be to hold a series of workshops to discuss solid-waste options for the city.
For more information, visit www.ecomaine.org.