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The state Department of Environmental Conservation is recommending that the ban on landfilling food scraps, set to go into effect in July, be pushed back to January amid the coronavirus pandemic.
And the department is recommending that haulers not have to collect recyclables during the state of emergency so they can focus on moving trash. The state recommendations come after some haulers made similar calls.
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. Starting this July, all Vermonters would be banned from trashing food scraps.
Peter Walke, DEC commissioner, told members of House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Tuesday that while many businesses, solid waste districts, residents and haulers are ready for that ban to go into effect this summer, some were in the “final throes” of preparation when the outbreak happened. Pushing the ban back six months should give businesses and others a cushion after the pandemic to be ready for that ban, said Walke, stressing that this is “not a change we advocate lightly at all.”
DEC is also recommending that lawmakers grant Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore the authority to temporarily lift the ban on recyclables being landfilled, and to allow haulers not to collect recyclables during the state of emergency. Walke said DEC recommended those changes so haulers, some of whom are facing staffing shortages, would not have to have separate trucks out collecting waste and due to concerns about how long the virus could last on different types of recyclables.
“The first and foremost (thing) we need from a public health standpoint is to have trash removed, and for the people who provide those goods and services to be able to continue to do their work,” he said.
Pat Austin, owner of Austins Rubbish & Roll-Off Service Inc., spelled out for lawmakers the challenges facing waste haulers during the pandemic. In addition to concerns about potential worker exposure to the virus when handling people’s waste, Austin’s commercial accounts and associated revenue have dried up.
At the same time, people stuck at home are generating more trash, and he has “deep concerns” about whether they’ll be able to pay for that going forward. And with some Northeast Kingdom recycling drop-offs closing during the pandemic, people who do not pay for recycling pickup have started putting out their recycling to be collected as well.
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“My company has no intention of landfilling any recyclables, but if the facility we have to go to closes, we need to adjust, and we’re going to have to move that material,” he said.
Both Austin and Paul Tomasi, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Solid Waste District, said pushing back the ban on landfilling food scraps six months would not give their region enough time to prepare for the ban. The district did recently receive a state grant to build a food scrap processing facility, but that effort has been delayed with the pandemic, said Tomasi.
“It looks different in Lemington or Holland than it does in Chittenden (County) or Rutland,” said Austin, who said it is financially untenable for haulers in the NEK to collect food scraps. “And that’s always going to be the case, we don’t have economies of scale.”
Representatives from Casella Waste Management and the Vermont Grocers Association also expressed their support for delaying the food scraps ban due to uncertainties caused by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, representatives from some solid waste districts expressed their opposition to DEC’s proposed changes to solid waste laws. Tom Kennedy, executive director of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, which runs two solid waste districts, said he was “frustrated” by the discussions around delaying the food scraps ban.
“Many of us are making the investment” in food scrap processing infrastructure, he said. “There are facilities that are looking for materials, there are farms that are looking for organics.”
Jen Holliday, director of public policy and communications for the Chittenden Solid Waste District, raised concerns about the impact haulers not having to collect recyclables would have on municipal drop-off centers. CSWD has recently closed all but its Williston drop-off center due to staffing shortages.
“We at CSWD would be inundated with their customers that want to do the right thing by bringing the recycling to our drop-off location, and completely overwhelming our facility,” she said.
The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee will take up solid waste matters again on Thursday.
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