Towns in central and northern Maine were seeking a workable alternative to landfills and incinerators when they engaged Fiberight to build a municipal solid-waste-processing unit in the town of Hampden. The $80 million facility was to be up and running by early 2018. It would convert food waste into biogas for injection into the local gas grid, mixed paper into recyclable pulp for egg cartons, and plastic film into fuel briquettes for energy generation.
But by March of this year, the facility was still incomplete. Local press reports noted weather-related construction delays, a challenge to the plant’s environmental permits, and difficult markets for recycled materials. Those delays point to the hurdles that municipalities face when dealing with new ways to handle and process waste. Reducing mountains of trash by turning it into fuels and chemicals would solve a lot of problems, but so far that has been difficult to do.
Several firms have tried and failed to develop new trash gasification technologies, including Range Fuels, KiOR, and Air Products and Chemicals. Air Products alone took a $1 billion write-off in 2016 for its attempt to gasify garbage and generate energy. High costs, technical complications, and cheap competing petroleum-derived fuels and chemicals doomed the projects to failure.
Yet relying on landfills is becoming increasingly costly and environmentally questionable. Tipping fees—the price charged to drop off waste at a landfill—can reach $70 per metric ton in Maine and exceed $100 in other areas of the US. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, each person in the US generates nearly 2.3 kg of waste per day. Of the 260 million t of municipal solid waste generated annually in the US, only about 35% is recycled or composted.
A Fiberight spokesperson indicates that the Hampden facility is now close to full operation. According to the firm’s website, the company recently commissioned a food-waste digester that is making biogas to provide heat and power for some of the site’s operations. Fiberight says its goal is to get the recycling rate for the communities it serves to 65%.