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Maine Voices: Likely closure of MERC should signal shift in how Maine handles waste

Cities and towns need to step up recycling, and state leaders must clamp down on waste importing.


With the Biddeford City Council’s impending decision to purchase and close the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator (“Biddeford council votes to purchase MERC,” July 18), there is much cause for celebration. There’s also room for discussion about the winners and losers in the deal.

The clear winners are residents of Biddeford and surrounding communities, who can expect to breathe easier come next spring, when the incinerator is slated to cease operations.

Incinerators spew a wide array of dangerous pollutants into the air, including hazardous dioxins, for which there is no safe level of exposure, heavy metals and furans. Airborne pollutants from incineration settle to the ground, potentially contaminating soil and water, or combine with atmospheric moisture, leading to acid rain.

For Biddeford residents, after 25 years of living with odors, pollution and the accompanying health effects, this upcoming change is a welcome one.

Biddeford businesses will benefit when the city’s biggest polluter is gone and its biggest eyesore is eventually removed. (Although, as Councilor Michael Ready put it Tuesday night, “My biggest concern about the stack is what’s coming out of it.”)

Downtown Biddeford is ripe for redevelopment, and MERC’s closing could usher in a boom in new businesses.

Maine is also a winner — the closure of the state’s largest incinerator is not insignificant when it comes to public health and the environment. Make no mistake, the Biddeford City Council’s likely decision is a sound one that will bring positive change.

Not everyone is celebrating, however.

The losers in the deal — the residents of Westbrook, who are about to play host to a Casella Waste Systems-owned trash transfer station, and residents of Old Town, who bear the brunt of the state’s trash already at the Juniper Ridge landfill — are glad to see MERC go but are pushing for change at the statewide level.

The perennial question when it comes to trash, particularly in a case like this one, is “where will it all go?” The answer: Waste is not a zero-sum game. Biddeford’s gain doesn’t have to equal a loss for other communities in Maine.

The state of Maine must take a two-pronged approach when it comes to reducing trash.

First, the Department of Environmental Protection must focus on increasing diversion of waste generated here in Maine from landfills and incinerators.

Our recycling rate has hardly budged in more than a decade, and there are steps we can take to fix this.

Programs like SMART (Saving Money And Reducing Trash), which financially incentivize waste reduction, can help municipalities jump-start their recycling rate.

Large-scale composting can begin to tackle the organic waste — food scraps, yard waste and the like — that makes up a full third of the waste stream. The DEP can provide technical assistance to towns and businesses to help on these measures and others.

The second prong in the approach is to draw a line in the sand when it comes to out-of-state waste.

Maine has been importing about half a million tons of waste each year from other states. This is a considerable amount — we’re currently generating 1.7 million tons of waste each year in Maine, so the amount of out-of-state waste we import is approaching one-third.

Currently, most of this out-of-state waste goes straight to MERC and a handful of other incinerators, so the demand for this waste should be largely eliminated once MERC is closed.

Maine should not be a dumping ground for the rest of New England, and state leaders should not look to continue the trend of importing waste from our neighbors to the south.

MERC’s closing is an enormous victory for Biddeford and nearby communities. It is a tangible win for public health, for the environment and for the revitalization of Biddeford.

It should also signal a tipping point when it comes to Maine’s waste: Let’s reduce, reuse and recycle — and stop importing trash.

Tracie Konopinski of Portland is the Maine community organizer for Toxics Action Center. Ed Spencer of Old Town is a member of the Trash Tracking Network and Orono Community Forums

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