Can Vermont Reach The 2020 Composting Deadline? Lawmakers And Haulers Weigh Options

Feb 2, 2018

When Act 148 — the state's Universal Recycling Law — unanimously passed in 2012, it put a lot of new requirements on the state's waste haulers. Two years shy of the next key implementation deadline, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee is considering a bill that would ease some of those requirements.

Under the 2012 law, haulers are required to pick up recycling, lawn clippings and food scraps.

They are also blocked from itemizing the services, which the state said might scare customers away from paying for diverting the waste.

Varying visions across the state

Craig Goodenough, owner of Goodenough Rubbish Removal in Brattleboro, says haulers got the short end of the deal from the start.

"We saw the problem right away," he says. "As far as the mandate, they're forcing these guys into a business that they don't even want to be in."

The Solid Waste Law has been phased in over the past few years: Larger restaurants now have to compost their food scraps and by 2020, individuals will be barred from tossing their food waste in with their regular garbage.

Goodenough says he already has to run a separate truck to pick up the compost at restaurants, but if he has to drive up and down the back roads of southeastern Vermont, stopping for little bins of food scraps, it'll be tough to stay in business.

The implementation timeline for universal recycling law from the state's December 2016 status report. Source: http://bit.ly/2GJY8Gb
Credit Vermont Agency Of Natural Resouces

"I've been in this a long time. I started out as a small guy with a pickup, and I worked my way up, and I've been through a lot of things," Goodenough says. "But what are you going to do, drive people out of Vermont, by making it green. I think the law needs some attention. It needed some more attention before it got signed in."

Chittenden County Solid Waste District director Sarah Reeves agrees that it's good time to debate the law and maybe make some changes.

"This is the perfect time to really take a hard look at what we need to do from a state and local level to make this program successful," she says.

Reeves says she could support a provision that would remove the mandate that forces haulers to collect food scraps

But she says the bill's not perfect.

"This is the perfect time to really take a hard look at what we need to do from a state and local level to make this program successful." - Sarah Reeves, Chittenden Solid Waste District Director.

An illustration from the Agency of Natural Resources on how to compost in your backyard. Source: http://bit.ly/2GItnkU
Credit Vermont Agency Of Natural Resouces

A provision that says haulers wouldn't have to pick up recyclables would be a step backwards, according to Reeves, and she'll also fight a proposal that prohibits the Secretary of Natural Resources from enforcing violations against haulers.

"Any time you're forging a new way, it's hard," Reeves says. "So there are some growing pains. But we're adjusting. And I think some of these tweaks that are being proposed to the law will help us to adjust and will help us get to our goal and reach our goal."

But Johanna deGraffenreid, with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, sees it differently.

“If we remove this requirement that haulers pick up organics, otherwise known as compostable materials, from residences, it will lead to an increase in food scraps and organic materials going to our landfills,” says Johanna deGraffenreid, with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Seth Donlon turns over piles of compost at Black Dirt Farm in Stannard. Black Dirt Farm collects food scraps from around the Northeast Kingdom and turns it into compost, which it then sells.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

But in some parts of the state, Vermont's Universal Recycling Law has jump-started a cottage industry of sorts.

In the Northeast Kingdom town of Stannard Tom Gilbert runs Black Dirt Farm, where he collects food scraps which he turns into organic compost.

Gilbert also supports the move to drop the hauler mandate, but he says a lot of the discussion in the Senate Committee made him nervous.

Lawmakers considered dropping the landfill ban that starts in 2020, and they are also still talking about allowing glass into the landfill.

A map of the service areas of ten of the state's 10 certified organics facilities from the December 2016 status report for the Universal Recycling Law. Source: http://bit.ly/2GJY8Gb
Credit Department of Environmental Conservation

Gilbert says the state is at a crossroads as the deadlines get closer and more demands are put on businesses and individuals.

And he says that while it makes sense to amend the law, the state should actually be investing more, and thinking creatively about how solid waste could be further reduced.

"If we thought when we passed this legislation that it was going to be just like sliding a hand into a glove, and it wasn't going to require any work to get to the goal it was naive," Gilbert says.

"I think the haulers are right," he says. "We shouldn't mandate for every single one of them to be traipsing all over the place. So you back off on that, but that doesn't mean that you throw out the goals, and that's my concern, is that we fundamentally start undermining the intent of the legislation."

The state's solid waste districts couldn't reach consensus on whether the hauler mandate should be relaxed.

Solid Waste District Association president Paul Tomasi says, that's because each region has different resources and needs.

"We really can't be grouped as a state in terms of managing solid waste," says Tomasi. "You know, things work better in certain areas. And each region is unique. If you interviewed every district manager across the state I think you'd get varying responses on how to deal with the hauler mandates."

Tom Gilbert, owner of Black Dirt Farm, holds finished compost, which is produced from food scraps his employees collect. The compost will be bagged up and sold.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Where the Statehouse stands

Orleans County Sen. John Rodgers isn’t convinced that the total ban on food scraps to the landfill is the best idea. But, he’s willing to go along with it.

What Rodgers says he cannot abide, however, is the part of the 2012 solid waste law that will soon require trash haulers to pick up Vermonters’ trashed food scraps.

“They’re not in the food scrap business, they’re not in the organics or compost business, and they don’t want to be,” Rodgers says. “And I don’t remember a time we’ve ever required a business to go into a business it didn’t want to.”

Rodgers says the mandate would require haulers to pay for all kinds of costly retrofits to expensive hauling equipment. He says it’d also build new inefficiencies into the business model by forcing them to expand pick up routes.

So Rodgers, who sits on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, has introduced legislation that would eliminate the mandate.

“To me it’s just like our state park policy - pack it in, pack it out, right? Every individual needs to be responsible for themselves,” Rodgers says.

Haulers support the proposal, of course, but so some other key constituencies, including the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Karen Horn, policy director at VLCT, says the mandate could make it more complicated, and more expensive, for municipalities to carry out their waste management duties.

“So it’s not profitable for haulers to invest in a truck that does just [compostable material] and then have two or three places to pick up on a single road, a five-mile stretch of road,” Horn says.

The people that pushed so hard for the food scrap ban in the first place, however, say the hauler mandate is the lynch pin.

As for Rodgers’ pack-it-in, pack-it-out philosophy, deGraffenreid of VPIRG says that’s just not realistic for many Vermonters.

“Individuals will find it very challenging, especially low-income residents in urban areas to find an alternative to that pick up service,” deGraffenreid says.

In the coming days and weeks, Rodgers will be lobbying his Senate colleagues to scrap the hauler mandate. Whether or not haulers ultimately have to get into the food scrap business will hinge on his efforts.

The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee is expected to open up debate on a revived solid waste bill in the next few weeks.