Solid waste on solid ground

By Beverly Roxby | Apr 11, 2014
Sandy Carey

Belfast — Business is picking up at Belfast’s transfer station. First-time visitors to the city’s facility at Belfast Industrial Park may be surprised by this place: it’s neat, clean and doesn’t smell. Best of all, the staff is friendly and even fun.

Residents who have never been there should check out the transfer station — it could be habit forming. That would please manager Sandy Carey. She believes this city’s solid waste program will just keep getting better.

Community recycling has been in place for decades throughout the U.S., but efforts are still seen as modest. According to the EPA, 54 percent of what Americans use gets thrown away. Another 12 percent gets incinerated, often for energy, and only 12 percent gets recycled. At the Belfast Transfer Station, Manager Carey thinks some Belfast residents can do better. With her experience managing Midcoast Solid Waste, she hit the ground running. “I’d majored in biology and forest management in college,” she said. “I guess my background seemed a good fit.”

Sandy Carey is enthusiastic. “I like it all,” she says instantly. She appreciates the variety, from the sit-down part, budgeting and researching new ways of doing things, to the more active part — helping residents with heavy lifting and working alongside her congenial staff. She and her colleagues are enterprising enough to rescue useful, sometimes quirky items that would otherwise be tossed into dumpsters — kitchen equipment from a restaurant that had closed, now salvaged and re-purposed and large potted plants now rejuvenated. A salvaged deer head minus antlers recently got an ear repaired by Steve, Sandy’s assistant, and for a time guarded her desk, waiting to be claimed by someone who would be thrilled to have it. It’s amazing what some people throw away.

While salvaging treasures is fun, increasing efficiency and saving money are especially rewarding. A large baler now compacts plastic containers for easier storage and shipment to recyclers. The city no longer has to pay for the transport of hazardous materials back to the manufacturers. A Planet Aid bin now collects clothing and shoes for distribution to developing countries, proving there is a lot more to the solid waste industry than garbage.

Belfast’s transfer station also provides generous support to the community. “We didn’t charge this winter for removal of branches from tree damage,” Carey says. And the donation program continues. Contributions of redeemable beverage containers benefit one charity each month, averaging from $300 to $400 monthly. (To be considered for this program, applications are due in December.)

Currently, Manager Carey is looking at ways to recycle bulky items such as mattresses. She is also researching the possibility of arranging to have Styrofoam and other plastic foam compacted, then sold for reuse as insulation material. In the environment, plastic foam is everywhere, bulky in our trash, and its tiny particles become airborne, a kind of permanent snow that finds its way to water. Known scientifically as micro-plastic, it often turns up in dead marine life, from fish and sea birds to marine mammals. “For environmental benefits and for energy savings — these are both important reasons to pitch in,” says Carey.

Garbage floats out to sea and it litters roadsides. But what is getting conserved at the transfer station?

“A lot,” she says. Money is generated from this useful material. Corrugated cardboard, now worth up to $125 a ton, a recent increase of $15. Sorted office paper fetches $165 per ton, Number 2 plastic milk containers are now valued at $724 a ton and mixed metals are always in demand. These are just some of the things that can be sold for recycling. Meanwhile monies generated from sales of these materials will help to balance the transfer station’s budget next year, all by reclaiming valuable materials that otherwise would have been dumped.

Despite all these reasons for recycling, some in Belfast haven’t yet gotten into the habit. “We wish more customers recycled,” Carey says. The majority of Belfast’s transfer station users just come to pay as they throw, $2.50 per bag. Right now, only 36 percent of those using the transfer station actually recycle. Why? For some, the concept of storing things like clean empty yogurt containers may be too bothersome. (If they’ve never done it before, why start?) For others, storage space might be an issue, especially for some downtown retailers. Condominium communities which must meet the needs of multiple residences can face logistical challenges when setting up recycling space. Still, Springbrook in Belfast is currently exploring ways for residents to do do it, and residents at the Ambassador have been recycling for more than a year. They also have a compost pile for their vegetable garden. When interest increases, solutions are found.

Recycling pays economic dividends to families, who can cut their disposal costs in half by recycling. Recycling is free of charge and if they compost food scraps as well as recycle, the economic savings alone should be encouragement for residents to try it out.

Meanwhile the treasures in trash continue to show up. To encourage reuse, Sandy Carey has started focusing on the goal of creating a permanent swap shop on site. Several Maine communities have swap shops, including Rockport, and residents seem to love them. Swap shops work like this: people drop off something they no longer need — an extra slow cooker or egg beater, canning jars, a child’s tricycle, an extra screw driver, cassette tapes, Aunt Ethel’s mink hat — the kind of potpourri found at yard sales. Unlike a yard sale though, items are “swapped” instead of paid for. No money is involved, and the process is much more simple and less time consuming than planning a yard sale. Drop something off, pick something up. In community transfer stations where swap shops exist, going to the “dump” takes on a whole new meaning. These places engage the community in both practical and fun ways.

Creating a Belfast swap shop has been the major focus of a small committee of Sandy Carey’s fans. Known as the 4Ts (Talkin Trash Tuesdays at Ten) this group has been meeting at the Belfast Coop for o more than a year. They are big supporters of swap shops and of other ways to promote community recycling.

Along with Belfast Transition and the Unitarian Church, 4Ts are sponsoring an event to demonstrate swap shopping in action. “Swap Till You Drop” will be held this Saturday, April 12, at the UU Church on Miller Street, from 9 to 11 a.m. Everyone is invited to bring in workable, usable items for swapping. Large items that can’t be brought in can be listed on a bulletin board. Both the event and the process are free, and things someone may value need not be discarded. Refreshments will be served. For more information on this event, contact Katia Ancona. Phone 323-5393 or online at .

Sandy Carey seems to know everyone who comes to her workplace but would welcome new faces. Can Belfast get its recycling rate up to 50 percent? Why not try? It’s spring, at last— time to raise our consciousness as we clean house.

The Belfast Transfer Station is open from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It is located at 32 Little River Drive (in the Belfast Industrial Park.) Brochures on the program are available at City Hall or at the transfer station. For more information, phone 338-1817.

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