The Future of Vermont’s Trash

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nekwasteVERMONT-Vermont is known for being one of the “greenest states” in the U.S. but we didn’t get that title from our rolling green hills. It’s our eco-friendly state of mind that puts us high in the ranking, and the state has plans to continue upholding its environmental responsibilities well into the future.

 

In 2012, the state passed Act 148, otherwise known as the Universal Recycling Law, which has plans to take an ambitious step towards reducing the amount of material that ends up in landfills. Despite our reputation, Vermonters are only recycling half the materials they could be, wasting money and shared resources.

This year, the state mandated that all trash service providers must have ways for managing recyclables, and in 2015 trash haulers will need to offer curbside pickup for such materials. These preparations pave the way for when Vermonters will be required to keep recyclables out of their trash, starting on July 1, 2015.

The Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District’s Lyndon location focuses solely on recycling. In 2013 their nine man crew was responsible for processing 2,790 tons of recycled material. When the law goes into effect that number will rise significantly, and Executive Director Paul Tomassi is planning for the larger haul.

“We’re trying to figure out just how we’re going to handle that increased volume of recycling. We do have the ability to add personnel or resources as needed, and we think we can do that in a cost effective manner,” Tomassi explained. “ We will have increased costs whether it’s for fuel, electricity, or labor, but we will also generate additional revenue. We’re selling our recycling for, on average, $70 a ton, so there’s some money to be made there”

Vermont started recycling in earnest back in 1987, when the state closed many of its unlined landfills, as well as provided grant money for recycling centers. Fifteen years before that the bottle bill was implemented with a similar mission of reducing litter as well as to conserve energy, increase recycling, and create jobs.

The bottle bill places an extra 5 cent deposit on certain beverage containers, 15 cents for liquor bottles, and when the consumer is finished with it they can return the container to a redemption center and get that money back.

The present day bottle bill wasn’t Vermont’s only attempt to control bottle litter. In 1953 the state passed its first bottle bill, the first of its kind in the country, which banned the sale of beer in non-refillable bottles. The law expired only four years later, due to strong lobbying from the beer industry.

Today some, like Democratic Sen. Robert Heartwell, want to do away with the bottle law, believing the Universal Recycling Law will be suitable enough for litter control.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group strongly disagrees, and even feels that an expansion to the bill is in order, supporting what they call a “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill.”

“The best thing you can do for recycling is build on programs that work, that means expanding the bottle bill and making sure it works well even as you expand other curb side recycling opportunities” explained VPIRG Executive Director, Paul Burns.

According to the group 85% of beverage containers with a nickel deposit are recycled, whereas only about 36% of other containers, like water, juice, and wine bottles stay out of landfills. The group would like to see such containers added to the program.

VPIRG says they aren’t the only ones in support of the state’s bottle bill. A study they conducted showed 93% of Vermonters support it as well, and less than 5% want to see it eliminated.

“I think the bottle bill has become almost a cultural thing, for many folks it’s a really important environmental law. You might think of it as similar to the ban on billboards in the state,” Burns said, “it’s something Vermonters are proud of, that they virtually all participate in, and feel good about.”

Recycling centers like NEKWMD would like to see the bill expanded as well. Tomassi expressed that he would like to see all glass containers included under the law, saying, “Glass is one of the few things we don’t make money on, it would be nice if they would hand all of that and we can focus on the other things. Glass is made from sand… once you color it, it’s difficult to separate. It’s a lot easier to just get more sand and make more glass.”

Adding plastic containers like water and juice bottles would hurt Tomassi’s business much either. NEKWMD makes most of their profits from cardboard and mixed paper.

Including additional containers is not the only expansion VPIRG is calling for on the existing bill. They would also like to see the state collecting the unredeemed deposits that distributors are currently keeping.

Burns explained, “this is something that takes place in 7 of the 10 states that have a bottle bill program today. The unclaimed nickels are not left with the beverage industry as they are in Vermont… that could be $3 million annually helping to support recycling programs, which would be a huge benefit to the state right now.”

Andy Upton, a bottle sorter at the Lyndonville Redemption Center, would hate to see the bottle bill go, “That would put me out of a job, and my friends that I’ve worked with for years, known for years, would be out of a job.”

Right now more than one hundred jobs across the state are dependent on the bottle bill. If the bill were to be expanded it’s estimated that nearly one hundred new jobs could be created.

Currently the bill that would expand the scope of the existing law is bottled up in committee, and last month a bill that would have made cuts to the law was shot down by legislature. For now it looks like the Universal Recycling Law will be working alongside the bottle redemption system as it is.

Act 148 doesn’t stop at recycling. Looking into the next six years Vermont will implement systems for handling lawn and yard debris, as well as clean scrap wood in 2015. State residents will be responsible for disposing of those materials properly in July of 2016.

Then in 2017 trash facilities will need to be able to manage food waste with Vermonters having to start managing their household food scraps/organic material by 2020.

Curbside pickup will be provided for all of the services listed under the Universal Recycling Law, and haulers will not be allowed to charge extra for such services.

This is Vermont’s plan for a greener future.