Big changes are coming to what likely is the most visited place in Harpswell — the Recycling Center and Transfer Station.

Renovation of the facility will begin at the end of August as part of a three-year, $1.1 million project, according to Manager Chuck Perow.

The center’s two trash compactors will be replaced, along with their concrete bases. Next up is expansion of the parking lot. Its rock wall will be removed by jackhammers or by blasting, Perow said, adding four to six extra parking spaces as part of a larger footprint with a new configuration.

“It probably will be a solid week of misery here, but we’ll try to stay open as much as possible,” Perow said. “The  parking lot will be really tough because we have to block part of it off.”

The lot “was never built for 18-wheelers and that’s how the recycling gets shipped out,” Perow said. The lot is so small and unsafe that the center’s workers – Greg King, Terry Racine, Donnette Goodenow, part-timer John Warner and Perow – wear bright “safety lime” green T-shirts. There are several accidents a year at the site, Perow said, as motorists attempt to maneuver in and out of the facility.

Phase one of the project, which will take six to 10 weeks to complete at a cost of about $450,000, also includes two new bins called “hoppers.” The current hoppers and compactors have corroded beyond repair.    “It’s being held together by gum and Band-Aids,” Perow said.

Phase two will begin in 2023, Perow said from his closet-size office in the center’s 1979 metal building, which will be upgraded with a new roof, siding and electrical system.

Perow said the estimated cost for phase two is about $650,000, most of it for electrical work.               Contractors for the jobs are Aceto & Sons Earthwork, of Lewiston, and Atlantic Recycling Equipment, of Rollinsford, N.H.

Voters approved the project in 2019 for construction beginning in March 2020. “Then the pandemic hit,” Perow said, and the town budget wasn’t approved until June. A shortage of steel added to the delay.

There is no town garbage pickup, so taxpayers  dispose of their own trash at the recycling center or transfer station. Perow said there are only two private trash haulers licensed by the town.

With up to 800 visitors on a typical Saturday during the summer, it’s so busy that locals joke it’s the place to meet friends and neighbors.

Karen Tcheyan, a year-round Orr’s Island resident, said she loves going to the recycling center. “I never know who I’m going to run into and what great conversations we’re going to have!” she said.

Perow said the facility averages 450-600 people a day and, on a Saturday, easily 600-800. In the “offseason,” 300-400 people come to dispose of their trash or unwanted treasures.

The “high season” used to be Memorial Day to Labor Day, but “that’s gone out the window,” he said. High season is now May 1 through Oct. 31 and, if the weather holds, the recycling station is busy until “leaf peeper season” in November.

What’s the difference between the recycling center and the transfer station?

The recycling center has two large bins – one reclaims recyclable materials such as paper, cardboard, recyclable plastic and non-returnable glass bottles.

The second bin is for household trash, non-recyclable packaging, Styrofoam, and other materials that can’t be reclaimed. There also is a smaller bin for returnable bottles and cans, which provide about $20,000 in revenue for the town.

In 2017, the center also began accepting food for compost, which goes to Garbage to Garden in Portland, a curbside compost service that bills itself as “a convenient way to recycle food scraps, including meat, dairy and bones, to be used to renew our local soil.” Last year Harpswell took in 51 tons of compostable food that was delivered to Garbage to Garden.

But don’t call the recycling center a dump. “I want people to recycle, so don’t call it that,” Perow said. He corrects residents who use the term.

The transfer station, up a short hill to the right of the recycling center, is for the disposal of construction debris, furniture, refrigerators, tree trimmings, batteries, tires and the like. Unlike the recycling center, which does not charge taxpayers, there is a fee for use of the transfer station. A car or truck is weighed  in and weighed out, with the difference determining the bill.

The minimum fee is $1.25 or $125 a ton. If the items are not sorted, the charge is $250. Solid waste goes to the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.

Harpswell’s recycled items are trucked to Auburn for sorting and distribution and then sold. Trash is incinerated at Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington.

According to its website, in the last three decades, the company “has generated enough electricity to power thousands of Maine homes and businesses each year, while promoting greater recycling and reducing the volume of municipal solid waste that ends up in the landfill by nearly 90%.”

Perow said it might be only one stop for taxpayers to use the recycling and transfer sites, but he uses 20 different vendors for recycling everything from shingles to electronics.

In 2019, Perow said, taxpayers brought in 1,460 tons of recyclables. That jumped to about 1,700 tons in 2020 and, as of July 1, recyclables are 6 tons ahead of last year.

The transfer station accepted about 1,502 tons of solid waste in 2019, which dropped to 1,473 in 2020, during the pandemic. As of July 1, the transfer station deliveries were 4.7 tons ahead of last year.

The centralized collection of household food and compostable waste was about 37 tons in 2018, 43 tons in 2019, 51 tons in 2020 and, as of June 1 (the latest estimate), there were an additional 3 tons over 2020 numbers.

Total annual revenue from the Harpswell facility is about $220,000, Perow said, which is added to the town’s general fund. Expenses for 2020 were $460,000.