Coastal Resources of Maine, the state’s newest solid waste recovery facility in Hampden, opened its doors in April 2019. The facility receives most of its trash and recyclables comingled in the same loads. According to Coastal Resources Director of Community Services, Shelby Wright, the facility has dubbed this process “one bin, all in.” It means that for most of the facility’s 115 municipal customers, the familiar way of recycling has changed.
The Municipal Review Committee, a nonprofit consortium, spearheaded the construction of Coastal Resources in 2015. The Municipal Review Committee manages waste issues for those 115 Maine municipalities, including Lincoln County towns serviced by transfer stations in Boothbay, Wiscasset, and Waldoboro. Both Boothbay and Wiscasset have temporarily suspended onsite recycling and are currently comingling recyclables with trash headed to Coastal Resources.
Loads of garbage from Municipal Review Committee member communities arrive daily at Coastal Resources, which operates around the clock. After household garbage bags are opened, some preliminary manual removal of scrap metal and bulky items like garden hose takes place, before the trash is hoisted onto a conveyor belt. The remaining constituents are then sorted by means of mechanical, magnetic, optical, and forced air technologies along with some manual picking.
The Coastal Resources facility differs from other material recovery facilities in its ability to shunt organic matter, paper, and plastic film into separate channels, where it is then further processed into useful products. The organics go to an anaerobic digester to produce biogas; paper gets pulped; and film is converted into fuel briquettes for industrial use. Cardboard and some types of plastics are culled and baled, while glass and metal containers are sorted out by type. In March, according to Wright, Coastal Resources obtained a 66% recovery rate from the loads of comingled trash, thus keeping at least some of it from entering a landfill. In time, the facility hopes to up that rate to 80%.
That’s at least the way things look on paper at Coastal Resources. In practice, as Wright acknowledged, the plant is still ironing out a few major wrinkles. For example, while the organics are being converted to biogas, the gas is currently being flared rather than recovered as energy. Once the challenge of “leveling” the gas composition is achieved, the fuel will be used to heat the plant. And further down the road, in what is expected to be a two year process, after meeting additional technological and permitting challenges, Coastal Resources intends to feed the biogas into the Bangor Natural Gas pipeline.
As for the fuel briquettes fashioned from the recovered plastic film, they are currently being stockpiled at the facility. Coastal Resources has been awaiting a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, for which it recently received verbal approval, to allow it to begin to sell this fuel source to industrial clients like Dragon Cement in nearby Thomaston.
The “one bin, all in” system seems fortuitously adapted to the pandemic environment. With transfer stations and their staff understandably reluctant to handle recyclables, they are increasingly being diverted to incinerators, landfills or, in the case of Municipal Review Committee towns, to Coastal Resources. A corresponding rise in demand for some of these diverted materials, especially paper products and PET(#1) plastic bottles, puts Coastal Resources’ “one bin, all in” system in a good position to potentially fill some of that void. They’ve begun, for the first time, to accept single-stream recyclables from other municipalities at what they believe to be a competitive rate.
To what degree the “one bin, all in” system might eventually become more prevalent in the waste industry is impossible to forecast. Thus far, there isn’t such a trend outside of Maine. Industry sources suggest that the down market in recycling has led some of the country’s larger material recovery facilities to upgrade their sorting technology to reduce contamination rates for baled paper and plastic, rather than to shift their collection or processing methods to anything like “one bin, all in.”
Nonetheless, it is worth pondering what it would mean if “one bin, all in” were to become the rule, rather than the exception, throughout the material recovery industry. The behavioral and psychological consequences would be profound. For one, there would no longer be an active role for consumers or municipalities in recycling as we know it. Instead recycling would become the sole province of the recovery industry.
In such a world, individuals formerly committed to household or business-related recycling might be free to direct their environmental concerns elsewhere. For example, their attention might shift to reforming the packaging industry in a way that makes it more accountable for the materials it uses and the products’ ultimate recoverability. Conversely, a less hands-on role might leave the consumer less likely to contemplate material recovery and instead relegate it to an “out of sight, out of mind” view. If the “one bin, all in” model, as counterintuitive and remote as it seems, is actually able to achieve recovery rates beyond what traditional recycling has ever attained, then it warrants our attention. Time will tell whether Coastal Resources turns out to be a unique anomaly or a vision of the future.
(Mark Ward and Michael Uhl are citizen journalists investigating recycling and waste-management issues in Lincoln County. Mark, of Bristol, is a biologist. Michael, of Walpole, is a writer.)