Local Action for Global Change: Waste-to-Energy and Single-Sort Recycling Efforts

Remember the 3,000-ton garbage barge that prowled the eastern seaboard in the late 1980s? The barge that could not find a place to offload its fetid cargo? Dubbed the “Mobro 4000” or the “gar-barge”, it carried six million pounds of garbage that could not be disposed of up and down the eastern seaboard. It quickly became a symbol for an international waste crisis that both foreshadowed and fueled the modern recycling movement. Recycling programs thereafter began to pop up in earnest around the country, municipalities began to invest in trucks for curbside pick up, and facilities began to adapt as a way to divert substantial volume of burgeoning waste from land-fills to recycling centers.

“MOBRO 4000” “gar-barge” in New York City, 1987.
Credit: New York Times

World Ocean Observatory and a small midcoast Maine local action group — Renew Rockland — recently visited ecomaine, a not-for-profit organization providing municipal services to about a third of Maine’s population with its waste-to-energy and single-sort recycling facilities. It was an eye-opening experience: not only for the sheer volume and speed of the recyclable materials sorted and baled for resale, but also for the startling amount of trash that makes its way to the mass-burn facility via household trash cans — materials that are either largely recyclable or compostable.

Today, Americans haul more than 100 million tons of recyclables to these kinds of centers each year. While this may seem like an encouraging statistic, it represents only 25% of what is produced in the United States annually. The rest is tossed “away” in landfills or burned. Ecomaine is able to mitigate 42,000 tons of recycled material annually that would otherwise end up in our space-strapped landfills. Since the plant was built in 1988, the organization reduced the volume of trash that it receives from participating municipalities by 90 percent through the combustion process, thereby extending the life of their landfill. The material that is received as trash is burned in their pollution-controlled steam-to-energy system that currently operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, producing 110,000 megawatts of electricity per year: 10% is used to power the entirety of the ecomaine plant, the remaining 90% is sold back to the power grid in Southern Maine.

ecomaine single-sort Bollegraff system.

In 2007, the company added single-sort recycling equipment: a Bollegraaf system manufactured in the Netherlands, that reduces recycling time to 3 minutes — from sort to bales of mixed paper, numbers 1 through 7 plastics, cardboard, newspaper, glass, tin, and other mixed metals that are then sold on the commodities market to be ground up or melted for reuse. Single-sort (also called single-stream) means that consumers need only separate recyclables from their garbage, a convenient, consumer-friendly system that has increased participation and curbside pick-up and pay-as-you-throw programs by 22%.

What can each of us do to further mitigate waste from the trash cycle? First, incorporate “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle” into your daily routine; remembering that refusal of certain single-use items is a best first strategy. Second, recycle as much as you can. Third, get involved at the local level to infuse recycling values and practices into your workplace, schools, church, and other institutions. Fourth, find or introduce a municipal composting program in your area. Fifth, use reusable drinking containers whenever possible to reduce the astonishing 35 billion plastic bottles currently discarded by Americans each year. And sixth, purchase products made from post-consumer recyclables whenever you shop.

Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, buy products from post-recycled materials.

Sustainability-focused groups such as ecomaine and other waste-to-energy plants are the way forward for a world drowning in plastics, the behavioral change that it will take to have no more Mobro 4000 “gar-barges” looking to dump this waste in the ocean, no more plastic gyres swirling around in the distant ocean, no more plastic clogging waterways and beaches, no more photographs of dead marine mammals with stomachs filled with plastic. These images have been both the reality and symbol of the extent of our patterns of consumption, excess, and un-managed waste. But we can solve this problem with existing technology and public engagement. And by so doing, we become the ones who will reverse the pollution of land and ocean for benefit at home and around the world.

We are optimists who are making the difference. We are the agents of change.

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