Universal recycling — an opportunity for Vermont

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By Deb Markowitz

As I’ve been traveling around the state talking with Vermonters about the new Universal Recycling Law, I have met many impressive individuals on the front lines of implementation. Trevor Mance, founder of TAM Waste Management, is one example. Trevor got his start in the solid waste business when he was a student at Mount Anthony High School working at the Shaftsbury landfill on weekends. Pretty soon he had bought himself an old one-ton truck and was hauling waste for customers in and around Bennington. By 2007, Trevor had constructed a recycling and transfer station, allowing him to keep costs down by recycling as much as possible.

Pioneering entrepreneurs like Trevor were part of the inspiration for Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (Act 148) passed unanimously in 2012. After a decade of stagnant recycling rates, the law sets forth benchmarks for consistent, convenient recycling services statewide.

Vermont has come a long way in 25 years. In 1980, nearly everything we used ended up in the trash. Then the Vermont Legislature passed a law closing unlined landfills, leading to the formation of Vermont’s solid waste districts. Transfer stations opened, curbside pick-up was established, and recycling services offered. More recently, the concept of “waste” has shifted to one of “materials,” recognizing the value of what we throw away, and the cost savings and business opportunities reusing, recycling or composting these materials provides.

Thanks to the Universal Recycling Law and folks like Trevor, by summer 2015, whether you’re in Springfield or St. Johnsbury, you’ll have access to recycling services. By 2020, food scraps and leaf and yard waste will be managed in your compost pile, dropped off at transfer stations, or picked up at the curb. Already, businesses or institutions generating two tons of food scraps per week, like the University of Vermont Medical Center or many grocery stores, are diverted from the landfill as donations to food banks, animal feed, composting, or anaerobic digestion. The law’s phased-in approach allows time for needed businesses and infrastructure to be developed, and municipalities and solid waste districts to adjust services.

Of course, not all change is easy. Some business models and municipal collection systems will need to change as a result of the new law. As challenges arise, it is important to recognize that opportunities also lie within these changes.

The state’s two largest recycling facilities, located in Williston and Rutland, were both recently upgraded and will be able to handle the increased quantity of materials. Ten food scrap composting facilities from St. Albans to Brattleboro to Burke have improved operations and are ready for more. Twelve food scrap hauling businesses have grown across the state. Anaerobic digester projects are also cropping up. The Vermont Technical College digester in Randolph will soon be accepting food scraps in partnership with Grow Compost; and Casella Waste Systems is working with Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport on a similar project. It is impressive to see the business community embracing and building around this new law.

Universal recycling also presents opportunities for municipalities and solid waste management districts. Towns like Vernon, Castleton and Canaan have adopted unit-based pricing, ensuring Vermonters only pay for what they dispose of. When Canaan adopted this disposal structure, it cut the amount of trash generated nearly in half, and the town’s waste disposal costs dropped from $117,000 to $58,000 annually. In addition, many towns and residents will see new recycling collection services that they have not had before.

Very few laws pass the Vermont Legislature unanimously. The Universal Recycling Law achieved that distinction because Vermonters were ready to grow our commitment to recycling and composting, and we are benefiting as a result. In 2012, when Trevor Mance went to the bank for a business loan to construct a facility for recycling organic materials, he brought his hauling business plan and a copy of the Universal Recycling Law. With that loan, he’s expanded recycling and food scrap collection operations, and now employs 25 Vermonters.

Change is not without its challenges, but as recycling, composting and businesses like Trevor’s grow, and municipalities save money, I look forward to all that universal recycling will do for Vermont.

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Deb Markowitz is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.