Talking trash with the League

Portland 101
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 28, 2011

The second site visit of the League of Young Voters' Portland 101 program, which Jeff Inglis outlined last week (see "Young Activists Explore Police Department," September 23), took the group to ecomaine, the non-profit waste management facility located off outer Congress Street. Ecomaine is owned by 21 municipalities around Southern Maine (of which Portland is the largest), and contracts with 22 more, serving a combined population of 335,000 people.

If you've ever wondered what happens to your blue bags or the contents of your blue bins, this is the place to find out.

"The reality is that every piece of trash you throw away causes pollution," said Melissa Labbe, ecomaine's business development manager, who led our group on a tour of the waste-to-energy plant, where garbage is burned to make electricity. She emphasized that while ecomaine's byproducts are relatively clean, waste-reduction is still the number-one priority.

About 40 percent of what comes into ecomaine as trash is recyclable — someone was too lazy or ill-informed to throw it into the right container (hey, I'm guilty of it too!). The plastic shopping sack is one of the worst should-be-recycled-but-isn't offenders.

There was a collective dropping of jaws when we walked into an observatory six stories above the "trash storage bunker," where a man named Dick was manipulating a giant mechanical claw that moved raw garbage around a cavernous holding space. At full capacity, the concrete bunker holds 4200 tons of trash — one week's worth. Let me assure you that seeing this bunker will make you reconsider how much stuff you throw away in the future.

The contents of the storage space are transferred into boilers that burn at between 1500 and 2000 degrees; the burning trash creates steam, which generates about 100,000 megawatts of electricity per year. Of course, before being emitted through giant smokestacks, the garbage-steam passes through a lime-carbon "pasty muck" (Labbe's words) that captures pollutants. The ash that remains is transported to a heavily lined and monitored ashfill nearby.

Labbe warned that improper disposal of electronics and compact fluorescent lightbulbs can result in heavy-metal residue in the ashes (such particulates are what cause acid rain). When asked about the best way to dispose of CFLs, Labbe pointed us to Portland's Riverside Recycling Facility, as well as many hardware and retail stores.

"We have to be cognitive of what we throw away and how it's going to end up," she said. "It's coming back to you — in your air, your water . . ."

Back in the ecomaine board room (this room, as with the whole building, suffers from an unfortunate, lingering odor), we watched a video tour of ecomaine's $3.7 million, state-of-the-art, single-sort recycling system. A maze of conveyor belts, magnets, human sorters, and ultraviolet sensors manages to separate cardboard, plastics, glass, and metals — 25,000 tons per year! Bales of recycled items are sold to manufacturers or "recycling brokers."

Portland recycled about 36 percent of its total waste in July; ecomaine's monthly winner was Pownal, which recycled 44 percent. After visiting that trash bunker, I can think of at least 20-some-odd people who are going to try to up Portland's percentage in the coming months.

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