New recycling mandates signal 'culture shift' in Vermont
BRATTLEBORO >> As Vermont begins its big, statutorily mandated push toward universal recycling this year, state officials likely will be making a mainly environmental sales pitch.
But when state Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz addressed questions and concerns about the recycling law (officially labeled Act 148) at a recent meeting in Brattleboro, she also made a financial argument.
Recycling, Markowitz said, just makes economic sense.
"It's a rethinking of waste management to really think about, how do we extract as much value as possible from a material to conserve natural resources?" Markowitz told Windham Solid Waste Mangement District board members. "It's as much economic as it is environmental. At the end of the day, if there's value in the things that we're putting in the landfill, then we're really losing an opportunity."
Act 148 was approved by the state Legislature in 2012, and it sets a schedule of recycling mandates designed to greatly reduce the amount of trash produced in Vermont. The first of those mandates is set to take effect soon: The law bans landfill disposal of recyclables (metal, glass, some plastics and paper/cardboard) by July 1 of this year.
Disposal of leaves, yard debris and clean wood is banned July 1, 2016. And on July 1, 2020, throwing food scraps in the trash will be illegal.
Concurrently, trash haulers and waste facilities must get into the recycling business. For example, as of July 1, companies that collect trash curbside also must begin picking up recyclables.
Markowitz noted that Act 148 received unanimous approval in the Legislature.
"And that's because Vermont policymakers understand that, really, the times have changed," she said. "We're no longer in an era where we've got unlimited landfill space to throw things away. And we're also no longer in an era where we can afford, as a society, to waste valuable materials."
At the same time, though, Markowitz knows the coming changes will be controversial.
"It's a tremendous culture shift," she said. "Some of the folks you serve are going to be for it, and some of them are just going to say, over their dead bodies ... we know that's human nature."
The law already has caused headaches for Windham Solid Waste, which provides disposal and recycling services from its Old Ferry Road headquarters and is supported by subsidies from 19 member towns.
Some of those towns have questioned the need for the district's roll-off recycling bins after July 1, since haulers will be required to pick up recyclables. But other towns have expressed support for the bins, and the district's fiscal year 2016 budget — which raises town assessments by 5.6 percent — keeps those bins in place for at least six months.
Markowitz didn't address that issue, but she did discuss another recent Windham Solid Waste controversy. The district has stuck with a dual-stream recycling model, in which paper products are separated from other recyclables, though some have pushed for a single-stream model in which all recyclables can be mixed.
Dual stream results in a cleaner and more-marketable product, proponents argue, but single-stream is cheaper for haulers and more convenient for residents.
"There's pros and cons to both," Markowitz said. "The single stream, what we hear is you get more participation but less value. So, in my view, it's hard to judge what ends up being better in the end. I personally think it would be better if we could keep more value in the materials by having a multistream approach."
She said the state will not mandate either recycling method.
"I'm comfortable with having (solid waste) districts decide what works for their locale," Markowitz said.
There is no choice, however, in complying with the new recycling law. Markowitz said the plan is to "make it convenient and easy to recycle — just as easy and convenient as it is to throw something away," and she stressed that there are no exemptions for any towns.
"Part of the goal of the law is to have some uniformity so that, wherever you are in Vermont, you have the same, convenient opportunities to recycle and to take your organics out of the waste stream," Markowitz said.
More information on the upcoming recycling mandates is available at www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/wastediv/solid/act148.htm.
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