The state of Maine is making history with the opening of the Coastal Resources of Maine recycling facility in Hampden, a city of about 7,000 on the Penobscot River.
The plant is the first next-generation recycling facility in the country, using innovative processes to eliminate the need for households to sort recyclables from trash while diverting more than 60% of waste from landfills.
“Our goal is to recycle 80% of household trash,” explained Shelby Wright, whose job it is to “talk trash” for Fiberight, the company that created and built the processes and facility that opened on Earth Day in 2019.
“We’re now recycling materials that would go to landfills,” Wright added.
The new $70 million facility, which harbors 3 acres of belts and sorters and washers and cookers under one roof, resulted from years of thinking and experimenting by Fiberight’s team of scientists and engineers, as well as through collaboration on the part of Maine’s municipalities concerned with conserving natural resources.
The facility was built on land purchased by Maine’s Municipal Review Committee, a nonprofit coalition of 115 Maine municipalities that has overseen the management of municipal solid waste since 1991. In 2012 MRC started to consider alternatives to the incinerator that had been its answer to recycling. Wright said markets for recycled materials were diminishing and the incinerator was no longer the answer MRC was seeking. Fiberight’s technology seemed to be the way to go, and in 2016, construction began.
The communities served by the new facility range from the coastal islands of Maine to the Canadian border to the city of Bangor.
Wright explained the key to diminishing the trash that goes to waste is Fiberight’s seven-step process that takes a single stream of trash in and produces marketable materials and products at the end.
Maine’s “one bin, all in” system means households put all trash, including greasy pizza boxes, leftover foods and plastic bags, as well as recycling, into one bin. The whole conglomeration is collected by local municipalities and transported to Coastal Resources of Maine. This way, Coastal is doing the sorting instead of the householders, Wright explained.
In addition to leaving caps on containers and bottles, households can drop items like glass, Tyvek envelopes and 3-foot lengths of garden hose, rope and tarps into their trash bins. Even needles and sharps can go into the trash if they are sealed in a detergent bottle and labeled.
Clothing, yard waste, tires, furniture, power tools and home improvement debris are not part of the “one bin, all in” system.
Getting the trash to the Hampden facility is the first step of the household trash recycling process. The second step commences with de-bagging the trash onto a conveyer belt that splits trash into streams based on size. Items that are large and bulky, as well as textiles, are immediately separated from the stream.
The recovery process is the third step and the point where high tech takes over. Technologically advanced optical sorting — magnets, electrical fields and density sensors — recover different types of glass, plastics, metals and cardboard from the waste stream to be recycled and reused as new materials, Wright explained.
Even plastic bags are sorted out of the waste stream and immediately sent to the sixth step of the process. Wright said plastic bags are hard to remove from the waste stream so are not typically recyclable. Coastal, however, is able to not only separate them but recover a clean end-product that is ready for reuse.
The fourth and fifth steps of the Coastal process take the remaining mixture of trash and paper and treat it with water. Organic materials move on to the seventh step, and paper is broken down to pulp creating a building block for new paper.
Wright said Coastal is the first recycling facility in the United States with a pulper. Typically, only clean, standard sheets of paper and cardboard have been candidates for pulping. Coastal, however, can recycle all fiber-based materials, including dirty paper plates, coffee cups and pizza boxes.
The sixth step, which is where the separated plastic bags immediately went after step three, processes those along with plastic films and wraps, and turns them in briquettes. These are used by local businesses for internal energy generation.
Finally, at step seven, where the organic materials go, the watery stream that contains food leftovers, flows into the anaerobic digester.
“It’s like a big stomach,” Wright said. The “digesting” process, which can handle up to 180,000 tons of trash and recycling a year, turns the organic materials into renewable natural gas. The water used for digestion comes out clean and loops back into the system to keep the recycling stream moving.
The renewable gas that comes out of the digester is Coastal’s source of power for the plant. Wright said future plans are to use the natural gas substitute in the community to lower its carbon footprint.
This entire process takes about 72 hours from the time a load of trash is delivered to the facility.
Wright’s enthusiasm for the new facility is boundless, because, she said, traditional ways of recycling have been less successful than anticipated.
“We’ve spent money to educate people, but it hasn’t worked,” she said, referring to the ways most municipalities have handled recycling. “This recycling center deconstructs the process,” making recycling doable for everyone whether they know it or not. In fact, she said, Fiberight has made it so easy for households, it’s been a challenge to convince some people they are actually recycling.
Wright said Catonsville, Md.-based, Fiberight started in 2007 as an “industry disruptor.” Since then, it has built pilot plants in Lawrenceville, Va., and Southampton, United Kingdom, to perfect its
processes and develop new technologies. The Maine facility is its first fully operational plant serving a local community.
“We’ve redefined waste as a resource,” Wright said. In addition to producing the plastic briquettes and renewable gas, Fiberight’s processes result in products that can be used in materials, such as rigid plastics, electricity generation, transportation fuels and feedstock for cement kilns.
Wright said her own venture into sustainability began with a paper drive while a Girl Scout. From student environmental activities in college and working on policy campaigns later, Wright found herself helping to coordinate the efforts of the Maine Resource Recovery Association. When Fiberight took notice, they offered her the position of director of community services. “I never would have imagined trash could be so incredibly fascinating.”
Wright acknowledged some communities find sending trash to the landfill is the cheapest way to deal with tons of refuse. “With recycled commodity prices at historic lows, too many communities have suspended recycling programs or limited collection to a few items, and now they may be struggling to provide these essential services to their residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
She said the Hampden facility provides a “more affordable and stable pricing structure for the processing of recyclable materials. Waste is a resource we can’t afford to waste.”