If you’re reading this on paper, chances are 64 Blueberry Rd. literally is your dump. (So please recycle.) It’s the home of ecomaine, the waste management and recycling operation collectively owned and overseen by 21 communities: Bridgton, Cape Elizabeth, Casco, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Gorham, Gray, Harrison, Hollis, Limington, Lyman, North Yarmouth, Ogunquit, Portland, Pownal, Scarborough, South Portland, Waterboro, Windham and Yarmouth. If you call any of these towns home, this is where your trash goes after it’s whisked away from the curb. It’s well worth a tour — free tours are offered to the public; see ecomaine.org for details — but here’s a preview of some of what you’ll learn.
After leaving the sidewalk in front of your domicile, your garbage travels to outer Congress Street on its way to ecomaine’s waste-to-energy incinerator and recycling center. Garbage and recycling trucks are weighed before and after dumping their loads. That’s how ecomaine calculates trash volume and recycling rates. Those rates range widely, from an impressive 47 percent in Falmouth to a measly 4 percent in Limington. The rate is largely determined by the policies municipal governments employ to encourage people to recycle — charging people for special city-issued trash bags, mandatory recycling, whether there’s curbside pick-up of recyclables
After being weighed, the trucks dump their garbage into a six-story “storage bunker,” or vertical warehouse. From a tiny operating room high above the bunker floor, a crane operator plunges a claw into the sea of trash and drops it into a chute that leads to the incinerator. Picture one of those arcade games where you try (and usually fail) to grab a stuffed animal with a hook — it’s a monster version of that, and way more complicated. The crane operator has a lot to consider: adding enough trash to keep the incinerator running at 2,000 degrees, making a stockpile to burn through the night when there are no deliveries, mixing different kinds of trash together, and keeping an eye out for big pieces of metal that could jam the works.
The burning trash creates steam that powers a generator, producing enough electricity to run the facility and sell back to the grid. The facility’s operators estimate it produces 100,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, bringing in just over $6 million in annual revenue.
Torching trash reduces its volume by 90 percent, turning the contents of the cavernous garbage warehouse into a couple truckloads’ worth of lumpy gray ash that’s buried down the road in ecomaine’s landfill. If the organization stopped burning garbage and went back to simply burying it, the 260-acre dump would fill up in just five years. By incinerating the trash first, the same area will last until 2036.
In the trash market, dump space is a commodity, but one whose price is not factored into the cost of dumping trash in a landfill. Because of this, it’s far cheaper to bury raw garbage and look the other way than it is to turn trash into ash at ecomaine’s incinerator. If consumers had to pay based on the true cost of the space their trash occupied, waste-to-energy facilities would become a lot more competitive. But until then, ecomaine is subsidized by you, the residents of its member communities, who have priorities other than making money from trash disposal — like getting the stinking garbage out of your house.
— Emily Guerin