This story was originally published at 11 a.m. Friday, June 9.
We walk on it, we drive on it. We even sleep on it. But when it's time to dispose of our old carpeting, tires and mattresses, it all becomes "oversized bulky waste" - or OBW. OBW is literally the fuel that fires trash-to-energy incinerators, including the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company in Orrington.
PERC is now running without the support of federal subsidies, without a third of its former municipal waste contracts. But managers at the plant say their economic fortunes are picking up thanks to a new pair of $800,000 machines that they call The Terminators.
The 40-foot long, German-built grinder dominates the center of the processing floor and emits a constant rumble as a nearby grapple-equipped excavator deposits worn-out tires into the machine's feeding compartment.
Within minutes, these old tires that that once clogged the state's landfills become fuel that will generate electricity to power homes.
Hank Lang, plant manager at PERC, says before the purchase of the new equipment, about 5 to 10 percent of its materials could not be processed for incineration.
"With this grinder machine, the Terminator," he says, "We have no non-processible material that we've sent to the landfill for the last two or three months."
That's about the same time that a federally-subsidized contract for electrical power expired, forcing 17 layoffs. PERC saw its power generation payments drop from $173 per megawatt down to about $75 during the peak heating season.
The plant is also preparing for a future without two-thirds of its municipal solid waste contracts from communities that have opted, instead, to send their refuse to new waste-to-energy plant in Hampden that's still under construction.
“So it's an enormous change in the financials of the facility because our primary revenue stream in the past was always the electrical end, now our primary stream is the tipping fee end, so...we're learning,” Lang said.
Tipping fees are what communities pay these facilities to accept their trash, and PERC is hedging its future bets on oversized bulky waste. That's because its competitor in Hampden won't be accepting OBW when it goes fully online sometime next year.
Lang says even if 10 pecrcent of all waste processed at PERC is oversized bulky waste, the two Terminators could mean the difference between turning a profit, or absorbing a loss.
"The Terminators can do a lot of work with less people," Lang says. "It only takes one guy to feed that machine. It still takes about the same number of maintenance people to keep everything maintained, but we don't need as many people to operate the equipment - in fact we've gone from four shifts - down to two."
And, carpets, tires, matresses, railroad ties aren't the only troublesome disposal items that the Terminators can handle.
"I think PERC has found a way to grind the old lobster rope," says Victor Horton, executive director at the Maine Resource and Recovery Association in Newport.
Horton says many communities have been trying to find a way to dispose of floating rope, known as pot warp, once used by lobster fishermen. The rope is being replaced in an effort to reduce whale entanglements, and Horton says, depending on its condition, the pot warp has limited or no value.
"You can only make so many lobster rope mats out of it," Horton says, "and a lot of times some of the issue is there's nylon, there's a little bit of cotton thrown in, there's a little bit of polypropolene, so you have to do some sorting."
At it's worst, the pot warp deteriorates as it collects in wait for an inevitable trip to a landfill. Waste disposal experts say the rope is notorious for jamming machinery at transfer stations, and if burned openly, will create toxic fumes.
On the island of Matinicus, resident Eva Murray had been watching the stuff pile up for years. But when she heard that PERC could process the rope, she rounded up a group of friends and loaded 15,000 pounds of pot warp onto a truck and transported it to Orrington, where it was ground up and burned to create energy.
"It doesn't make any difference to the people of Matinicus where it goes, as long as where it goes is a better option than what we've got here," Murray says. "We'd like to not landfill it, we'd like to not open burn it, and we definitely want it not in the ocean."
And oversized bulky waste isn't going to go away. The state Department of Environmental Protection places OBW within the category of demolition and construction debris, which makes up more than one quarter of of all solid waste generated by normal household and commercial sources.
Meanwhile, at PERC, plant managers say they expect to see increased business over the summer months as more communities choose to generate electricity from their OBW, instead of burying it in the ground.
Originally published 6:22 a.m. Friday June 8.