Recycling bill might, ultimately, be too much of a good thing

Jon Margolis is VTDigger.org’s political analyst.

It may have seemed a bit peculiar when three senators endangered passage of a bill they do not oppose by inserting two amendments that could doom the underlying legislation to defeat in the House of Representatives or a veto by Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Well, maybe not so peculiar. Only its supporters can scuttle this bill because it has virtually no opponents.

And that’s really peculiar because this particular piece of legislation would also have a much more direct, noticeable, day-to-day impact on the people of Vermont than most of the proposals that dominate the headlines, arouse the wrath of lobbyists and editorial writers, and stimulate hours of legislative debate.

That impact, to be sure, is not likely to seem onerous to the average person. No one will be forced to perform hard labor (at least as it is usually defined), spy on his neighbors, mistreat her pets, or violate any known religious commandment.

They’ll just have to separate their garbage.

The bill is H.485. It has the very boring title of “An act relating to establishing universal recycling of solid waste.” What makes it not so boring is that it would do just what the title says and more. It would not only “establish” that “universal recycling,” it would require it.

“The people of the state will be doing the heavy lifting,” said Sen. Virginia Lyons, the Williston Democrat who chairs the Natural Resources Committee and who voted against the amendments her committee adopted.

Most likely, all the lifting would end up being light. But Lyons was right when she said, “behavior will have to change.” If the bill becomes law, which it will unless it is unwittingly sabotaged by a few of its supporters, every Vermont household will have to divide its trash into three parts – regular, recyclable and organic – by 2020 (in the bill as passed by the House) or 2018 (in the current Senate version).

Those households will not be left to fend for themselves. The proposed law requires trash haulers to provide separate receptacles for each trash classification. Those who take their own trash to a drop-off location would find the same provisions there.

Actually, all those households won’t “have to” separate the regular trash from the recyclables. But it will cost them to do otherwise. The bill includes what Jennifer Holliday of the Chittenden Solid Waste District calls a “pay as you throw” provision. Garbage companies will be forbidden to charge for hauling away recyclables, but may charge for organics and raise rates for regular trash. Households that throw their newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes in with their regular garbage will be paying a lot more for the privilege.

Especially after July 1, 2015, when “leaf and yard residuals and wood waste” are classified as recyclable.

Despite its potential intrusion into household life, the bill has not become controversial. One reason is that it has not gotten a lot of attention, which in turn could be the result of the lack of controversy. So the bill got little coverage, meaning few people realize they may have to start separating their garbage in a few years.

No doubt many Vermonters agree with the basic thrust of the bill, perhaps because some of them know that the state is running out of space to dump solid waste.

All this relative peace and quiet seems to stem from an early decision by the bill’s supporters to secure the backing of the garbage-hauling industry, thereby making it less likely that Montpelier’s business lobbyist community would mobilize opposition.

Satisfying the haulers did not appear to have been difficult. The measure does impose requirements on the garbage haulers, but it also provides them with saleable commodities – the recycling and even the organic garbage, some of which can be sold as compost.

Early in the process, some independent haulers worried about the cost of retrofitting their vehicles to meet the new requirements. That’s why the House decided to delay full implementation of the law until 2020. The Senate committee cut that back to 2018, but that is not expected to be a major problem, according to the bill’s backers.

What could become a major problem is the insistence by three Natural Resource Committee members to add the two amendments. One would extend the current bottle-redemption law to plastic water bottles and other containers now exempt.The other would ban plastic grocery bags.

Over the opposition of Lyons and Republican Sen. Randy Brock of St. Albans, Democrats Mark MacDonald of Williamstown and Richard McCormack of Bethel and Republican Joe Benning of Lyndon inserted the bottle law extension and the plastic bag provision into the bill.

The measure needs to be cleared by other committees, so is not likely to reach the Senate floor until Tuesday at the earliest. It could be amended by those committees, on the Senate floor, or in a House-Senate conference later. But it’s also possible that the House and Senate would not be able to agree, and if a Senate version with those two amendments reaches Shumlin’s desk, he has indicated he would veto it.

Whatever the merits of the amendments, Holliday and other backers of the basic bill argue that they have not been properly vetted in committee. There was no testimony at all on the plastic bag proposal, she said, and that while the committee held hearings on the bottle bill extension, only proponents testified. There was no testimony, she said, from either the beverage industry or from solid waste districts, which could lose a substantial amount of revenue if more bottles could be redeemed for money.

In addition, she said, the amendments jeopardize passage of the entire measure.

“I’d hate to lose a bill that covers 95 per cent of the solid waste over an effort to deal with just a few percent,” she said.

What may be most peculiar about the solid waste bill is that while it has no enemies, it could be killed by its friends.

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Jon Margolis

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  • Ron Welsch

    I am a recycling board member in Wisconsin. This article makes the two DNR provisions sound like poison pills. I urge you all to see them as the contrary. As an avid cyclist as well, I see way too many plastic bags and bottles along our roadways where we have no redemptions for bottles or cans. It seems our people are not poor enough as evidenced by all the cans along the roadways. I urge you all to embrace the change. You are on the verge of drastically increasing your economic viability and your states natural beauty.

  • Barb Morrow

    People forget what it was like before we had bottle redemption. It has made such an improvement in the cleanliness of the state. It’s the grocers’ lobby that is putting up such a big fuss.

    And separating “garbage?” Easy. Most of us do it already. If we dislike it, we can create less garbage. Harder, but can be done. THAT is what will rock the boat.

    This article? Very fun to read how the mind works. Another quality perspective from Mr. Margolis.

  • Alex Barnham

    1 Garbage is food waste which makes great compost
    2 Trash is unrecyclable items
    3 Kiddie trash is what uneducated children throw out the window when they are not at home. Beer bottles, soda cans, greaseburger wrappers, etc.
    4 Recyclables are usually labeled as to their respective recycle material makeup and manufacturers have finally been made by law to label their products for recycling.
    5 Burn barrels are what Vermonters previously used to recycle all the above and, quite frankly, some might still stand and drool while watching their trash smolder away in an old 55 gallon drum with holes in the bottom and sides and is so nasty it isn’t even listed in the Urban Dictionary.

  • Alex Barnham

    The primitive ways of tribal law will eventually give way to the laws of necessity…it is illegal now so no one throws their pails of waste out the windows BECAUSE…
    1 Why throw away good compost material
    2 Why risk being sued for being a public nuisance
    3 Why ruin your lawn with uncomposted waste

    ALL OF THE ABOVE, is the right answer.