Plastic Waste Trade Washes Ashore in Maine

Chunks and fragments of baled plastic waste, from Northern Ireland and bound for incineration at PERC in Orrington, littered the shores of Sears Island this week. Photo credit: Ethan Andrews/The Free Press.

In the late 1980s, while working as a researcher for Greenpeace’s toxics campaign, I noticed a trend of toxic waste and garbage leaving the United States.  We tracked vessels like the Mobro, the “garbage barge” that left New York City only to return, and the Khian Sea, which went on a toxic journey: it carried incinerator ash from Philadelphia to Haiti, where it offloaded on a beach before fleeing in the night, through the Panama Canal and back, lingered off the coast of the U.S. and other countries, and eventually, illegally dumped its cargo in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, a crime admitted by the ship’s captain.

To some extent, it worked:  our campaign against waste trade secured a global ban on the export of toxic wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries through an international agreement called the Basel Convention. But the U.S. has never become party to this agreement.  

Our point then was to prevent waste from following the path of least resistance, to places where environmental, labor and human rights protections are lowest.  Today, the state of Maine is on the receiving end of international hazardous waste.

Two weeks ago, the Sider London cargo vessel arrived in the coastal town of Searsport, also known as Wassumkeag or shining beach by the indigenous Wabanaki tribes, at the head of Penobscot Bay.

Its holds were stuffed with more than 20 million pounds of baled plastic waste from Re-Gen Waste Ltd., a waste agent and processor in Northern Ireland.

Some plastic bales fell into Penobscot Bay during the transfer, which local residents discovered washed up on the shores of Sears Island. The rest of the plastic waste was delivered to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company (PERC) incinerator further up the Penobscot river estuary, in the town of Orrington.

In three weeks, shipments of plastic garbage from Europe to Maine, as of January 1, 2021, such as the one that just arrived, will be illegal under the Basel Convention.

This quick analysis provided by Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network puts the Maine waste shipments in context.  Jim is a long-time colleague, and the world’s foremost expert on the Basel Convention and waste trade. His analysis leads me to suspect that this massive and unprecedented shipment to Searsport was a last-ditch dumping of waste before it becomes illegal under U.K. law. I would not be surprised to see more coming this month.

After the initial global waste-trade ban was secured, I went on to research all sorts of issues (and work for a time at the Bar Harbor Times). I continue as a researcher, now with a low-profit company with a charitable and educational mission, that I formed two years ago with Caroline Pryor, who is developing a project  to manufacture affordable, clean energy homes in Millinocket using Maine-made materials. 

Our company, Material Research L3C, is based in Southwest Harbor, Maine. We have a team of 11 people based in the U.S., Argentina, and Europe. We work with non-profit organizations and community development agencies in Maine and worldwide.  Several other Material Research team members, including Connie Murtagh, who continues to specialize in trade, and Verónica Odriozola, our international toxics coordinator, also worked on the Greenpeace waste trade campaign.  

To identify what is shipped where, Connie searches Datamyne, a trade database to which we subscribe. She found the following information about seven waste shipments to Maine this year.

2020 Shipments from Re-Gen Waste Ltd. (United Kingdom) to Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (Orrington, Maine)

Date Maine Port of Arrival Weight (metric tons) Commodity description
1/10/2020 Portland 49.36 Bales of plastic waste
2/9/2020 Portland 67.8 Bales of plastic waste
3/22/2020 Portland 51.1 Bales of plastic waste / scrap
3/28/2020 Portland 50.8 Bales of plastic waste / scrap
4/10/2020 Portland 152.6 Bales of plastic waste / scrap
4/24/2020 Portland 101.1 Bales of plastic waste / scrap
11/28/2020 Searsport 9,849. Shredded waste plastic balled and wrapped
TOTAL   10,321.76 metric tons ~22.75 million pounds
All shipments departed via Reykjavik, Iceland, except 11/28/2020, which was from Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, UK.

The source of the plastic waste is Re-Gen Waste Ltd., based in Northern Ireland. According its website, “Re-Gen Waste operates its Newry-based factory 24 hours a day to process over 1.5 million tonnes of waste. As well as the processing of Mixed Dry Recycling, the company processes Residual Waste for conversion to RDF.” RDF is Refuse Derived Fuel.  Photos of the facility can be seen on this Google page.

The PERC incinerator that burned Europe’s plastic trash holds an air emission license from the Maine DEP, last renewed in 2017. It allows the release of dioxins and other extremely toxic emissions including lead and mercury. It does not restrict the type of plastic waste that is burned in Orrington, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the burning of which creates dioxins.

Ash from the PERC incinerator is trucked then dumped in the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town, which lies a bit further up the Penobscot. Juniper Ridge also accepts 200,000 tons of waste from out-of-state each year. A video by the Sunlight Media Collective documents this frightening fact about Juniper Ridge: Ten million gallons of untreated leachate is pumped into the Penobscot River each year.  

And now, the Penobscot River and estuary, at the heart of Penobscot Nation, is the final resting place, literally the end of the pipe, for what’s left of the European trash burned in Orrington.

“There are very few toxic pollutants they have to monitor on a frequent basis,” says Dan Kusnierz, Water Resources Program Manager for the Penobscot Nation. “The material that’s going into the landfill is a very complex mixture that comes from all over the place.”

I will tell you that the size of this shipment — at 9,849 metric tons (more than 21.7 million pounds) — is shocking to veteran waste trade campaigners. We’ve not seen bales of plastic filling the holds of ships bound for the U.S. Shippers place plastic wastes in containers, not bales, Jim Puckett told me, for reasons as obvious as the shards of plastic from Europe that are in Penobscot Bay.

The U.S. is the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of plastic resins, and the Fenceline communities adjacent to these facilities bear the brunt of the associated air, water and land pollution. Most of these U.S. facilities are owned by overseas companies producing for overseas consumers.  Europe, for example, is a major destination for the plastic resins made in Texas and Louisiana.

The petrochemical supply chain has come full circle, following the path of least resistance back to the United States, for final disposal.

December 8, 2020 photos taken by Ethan Andrews/The Free Press and originally posted here:

Recent articles: