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Two trash haulers -- including the state’s largest waste management company -- are seeking to loosen several key solid waste regulations in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
Casella Waste Systems and West Charleston-based Austins Rubbish & Roll-Off Services want to see a ban on food scraps in the trash -- set to go into effect this July -- delayed “indefinitely.” They also want to landfill recyclables during the state of emergency.
Casella, which is also making contingency plans if their workers get sick, contends these measures are needed to minimize disruption to trash pickup. The requests come as some recycling and trash drop-off centers around the state have closed or reduced hours during the pandemic.
Casella CEO John Casella wrote to Gov. Phil Scott on March 17, saying that the company anticipates pandemic-related challenges ranging from difficulty selling recyclable materials to problems with their subcontracted haulers. He called on Scott to “strongly contemplate” taking emergency steps like allowing waste to be collected 24/7 and lifting the ban on recyclables being landfilled, among other measures.
Casella is a colossus in the Vermont waste management scene. The company operates 22 transfer stations and the state’s two recycling processing facilities (or “MRFs”), hauls waste throughout much of the state, and owns Vermont’s only open landfill in Coventry.
Kim Crosby, environmental compliance manager for Casella, told members of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee Tuesday that the state has granted solid waste managers some flexibility in terms of hours they’re allowed to operate facilities and haul waste. Other measures, however, would require legislative action.
“It is our understanding that we are in the very infancy of this epidemic’s trajectory,” she told committee members, adding, “It has been incredibly difficult to plan around and predict what the next few months, and possibly longer, will bring.”
Vermont lawmakers passed the Universal Recycling Law in 2012, banning the disposal of recyclables into landfills starting in 2015 and leaf and yard debris in 2016. Businesses that generate over one-third of a ton of food scraps a week are currently banned from throwing away food scraps -- a prohibition that will extend to all Vermonters on July 1. That is the prohibition Casella is hoping to delay.
Although Vermont households compost an estimated 40% of their food scraps, they throw around 40,776 tons in the trash each year, according to a 2018 waste characterization report prepared for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
In a March 27 letter to House and Senate natural resources committees, Crosby asked lawmakers to delay the ban of food scraps from the landfill “indefinitely,” or for at least a year. She stressed to senators Tuesday that this request was not an “attempt to thwart any of the progress made on Act 148.”
“I think it’s unrealistic to think that this will be over and things will return to normal by July 1,” she said, adding that holding off on the food scraps ban could help lower costs for restaurants and other businesses after the pandemic.
DEC Commissioner Peter Walke told members of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee Tuesday afternoon that “for the most part,” the food processing and collection infrastructure is in place for the ban to go into effect this summer.
“I think that the question, and one that you as policymakers need to wrestle with, is whether or not the potential economic impact of having to start collecting and hauling food waste is appropriate at this moment,” he said.
In 2018, in response to markets for mixed paper drying up, lawmakers granted ANR Secretary Julie Moore the authority to waive the ban on landfilling that material for one year. (Moore did not end up granting any repeals.) Crosby said Casella would like lawmakers to allow ANR to do something similar for mandated recyclables and organics either until the end of the year or until the state of emergency lifts.
“While we have not had to throw away recyclables yet, we are aware that some haulers, especially some of the smaller haulers who have limited resources, either are or plan to do that regardless of the law,” she said, adding that the “number one priority” for waste managers if the outbreak worsens, trash pick up infrastructure will be needed to avoid other public health problems.
Cathy Jamieson, solid waste program manager for the DEC, told senators Tuesday that national company Waste Management Inc. has taken a different tack by sending its customer flyers urging them to properly recycle, particularly given the need for cardboard for tissue and delivery boxes.
“Right now, recyclables are moving,” she said, adding that DEC would prefer case-by-case exemptions as a “relief valve” if markets for certain recyclables dry up, rather than a blanket waiver.
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, meanwhile, told committee members that he sees a temporary suspension of the recycling and organics disposal bans as having more to do with a lack of access to recycling and food scrap disposal during the pandemic. Glover and other towns have recently closed their recycling drop-off centers, he said.
“We have no idea how long this is going to go on and how much room people have in an apartment to store their own recyclables -- (and) nobody really wants a whole room full of recyclables,” said Rodgers.
Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, cautioned that she feels the kinds of delays and suspensions requested by Casella are a “slippery slope.”
“I think we run the risk of every sector asking for some sort of evaluation of what their options are when it comes to what’s in statute,” she told fellow members of House Natural Resources.
Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, said in an interview Wednesday that her committee would take more testimony on that and other requests to more fully understand “economic hardships” facing both businesses needing to comply with solid waste mandates and haulers.
“A lot of people have already started the food scraps” collection, she added. “But to the extent they haven't, or to the extent that they're having reduced volumes that don't make it realistic, we have to be open to understanding their whole picture and considering the request.”
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, also said in an interview that his committee needed to discuss the requests more formally. But he thinks some of the requests “are based on the concern for potential problems more than they are on current problems.”
Bray added that he sees pushing back the ban on food scraps going into landfills by a year as “very problematic.”
“A lot of people have been counting on this, investing in infrastructure ... so a delay at this point would not really be fair to them,” he said.
Crosby also told senators that Casella was developing “contingency plans” to ensure waste collection would continue amid labor shortages. While none of Casella’s 2,500 employees have yet tested positive for COVID-19, the company does have some staff who are at home quarantined, she said.
Other waste managers are also short-staffed, including Chittenden Solid Waste District, which closed all but its Williston drop-off center last week. Casella and other haulers have also started collecting waste in previously unserved areas where municipal drop-offs have shuttered, Crosby added.
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