As Universal Recycling Ramps Up, Low Commodity Prices Strain Vt. Waste Districts

May 11, 2016

A recent downturn in commodity prices has some waste district managers scrambling to make ends meet just as they are getting ready to meet new demands of the state's universal recycling law.

By one measure, Vermont's universal recycling law has been a huge success. Across the state, recycling rates are inching up as less trash is going into landfills.

But the 2012 law put more responsibilities on the solid waste districts. And now waste district managers are trying to figure out how to increase their capacity as the amount of money they receive for recycled material drops.

At the Windham Solid Waste Management District in Brattleboro, Executive Director Bob Spencer says the impact of the low commodity prices is hitting the district hard.

Just a year ago, the plastic, cardboard and metal could be sold on the commodities market, and that income helped pay for Spencer's 14 employees.

But due to low oil prices and a slumping international economy, the once stable source of revenue is now yielding very little. 

"The markets have crashed for these commodities," Spencer says. "Traditionally you could sell recycling, in that it was saving money. It's good for the environment, and keeps material out of landfills, but you used to be able to say also that it could save a community money. That's not so much the case right now."

The sharp drop in income comes at a particularly tough time for Spencer and for Vermont's other solid waste districts.

"Traditionally you could sell recycling, in that it was saving money ... That's not so much the case right now." - Bob Spencer, Windham Solid Waste Management District

The state's new solid waste law is being phased in, and more has been asked of the solid waste districts.

And in the next few years districts will have to invest even more money to come up with ways to deal with compost, which won't be allowed into landfills in 2020.

Spencer says the waste districts are meeting later this month to try to come up with some solutions.

"We're having a special retreat to lock ourselves in a room, for a whole day, to come up with a strategy to deal with legislation and the challenges of meeting Act 148," he says. "We need to try to figure out how we are going to deal with this, because we don't know."

Bales of metal, paper and cardboard wait to be shipped out of the Windham Solid Waste Management District in Brattleboro. Executive Director Bob Spencer says the district currently meeting to find a viable solution for handling compost.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Vernon Rep. Mike Hebert is a member of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Hebert says the drop in commodity prices was a wake-up call, and he says the Legislature will have to deal with the problem next year.

"I think next year, if I'm fortunate enough to go back, I'll be submitting some sort of legislation," Hebert says. "We need to find a sustainable funding source and right now we don't have one."

When the Vermont Legislature unanimously passed Act 148 in 2012, there wasn't any extra money attached to the wide-ranging bill.

Josh Kelly, at the Agency of Natural Resources, says some districts are seeking out grants to get ready for the big changes coming in composting.

"It's been known since the beginning that this law didn't come with a funding source," says Kelly. "The Legislature has looked at that for several years. But there's certainly more that needs to be done in terms of outreach and education in terms of having more hauling services throughout the state and more processing capacity, and certainly more could be done."

Under the solid waste law, large institutions such as hospitals and colleges have to begin composting after July 1, 2016. Next year all facilities that manage trash will have to compost their food scraps.