Pellet bag disposal raises environmental questions

ADDISON COUNTY — Until early this year, plastic disposal was not an issue that Ferrisburgh resident Ann Poskas had to think too hard about.
When Casella Waste Systems discontinued its plastic bag recycling program, stating that the thin film clogged its systems, Poskas began storing her bags.
Like others who heat their homes with wood pellets that are delivered in plastic bags — which problematically for recyclers are dusty inside and like other plastic bags therefore hard to handle — Postas quickly noticed those bags began to add up.
For the past two years, she and her husband Michael have heated their home with a pellet stove, a wood-burning fireplace insert backed up by an oil-burning system. Ann Poskas said they use about 6 tons of wood pellets each year, and that there are 60 bags per ton — meaning that in an average year, Poskas now must figure out how to deal with of 360 Turman Hardwood Pellet bags.
Ann Poskas said heating her 150-plus-year-old home with wood pellets is a great deal — they save thousands of dollars each year compared to heating by fuel oil alone.
But now that Casella has abandoned plastic bag recycling, the pile in her barn is growing.
“I would drive a long way to get rid of these,” she said.
Donald Maglienti, program coordinator at Addison County Solid Waste Management District, said that the organization has been trying to find ways to accept plastic bags. But while grocery stores like Hannaford and Shaw’s accept used bags for return, he said the process of launching a local plastic film recycling program would be more difficult.
“Film plastics in general are difficult to recycle because of the large degree of variation,” Maglienti said. “Currently, there’s no local way to do it.”
Nancy Plunkett, waste reduction manager at Chittenden Solid Waste District in Williston, said recycling services across the nation struggle to deal with plastic bag disposal. Not only do bags come in a range of plastic types — specifically, numbers two through seven — but most uses for recycled plastics require that the bags be free of contamination.
“One thing that, to date, has been very clear is that the markets want materials that are dry and clean,” said Plunkett.
And wood pellet bags are often contaminated with leftover sawdust, and bags are difficult to clean on a large scale.
Further, said Anne MacMillan, an agrichemical toxicologist at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, trying to process dirty plastic is bad for the machinery that chops plastic bags.
“It dulls the blades when you’re grinding it up, and washing adds cost to it,” she said.
MacMillan researches agricultural plastic disposal and recycling, which she said could eventually help consumers like Poskas looking to recycle their consumer plastics. MacMillan said the sheer volume of agricultural plastics used in the state — including hay bale wrappers and maple sugar tubing — creates a widespread disposal problem, especially since the fee for trash disposal is high in Vermont.
“People look at (the tipping fee) and say they’re not going to take it to the dump, so they either bury it or burn it,” said MacMillan.
If these plastics are burned at too low a heat, they can release harmful chemicals like dioxins, which she said pose health risks to humans and any livestock around.
But dumping the plastic is not an ideal solution, either.
“It takes up landfill space, and it’s a resource. It’s a source of petroleum, and there’s only a finite amount around,” said MacMillan.
Ideally, she said, used plastic would go to construction and industrial uses like drainage tiles, plastic lumber and trash bags. Currently much of the plastic film recycled in the country gets shipped to China, which she said is also far from ideal, since doing so requires a great deal of energy and cost.
“We don’t want to ship it overseas,” said MacMillan.
On a smaller scale, Plunkett said that the CSWD has plans to expand its Williston facility this summer, which will mean an added capacity to recycle plastic film. And if the program is successful, she said it may well be able to take plastic film from other areas of the state.
But there is another option, said Greg Pahl, co-founder and president of the Middlebury-based Acorn Energy Co-op.
Pahl said that the co-op, which connects people with local, sustainable heating options, has been dealing with the issue of plastic disposal, especially as its subscriber base grows.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” he said.
The co-op uses pellets from the Vermont Wood Pellet Company, a North Clarendon company that, said Pahl, will accept the plastic bags that the pellets come in at their factory location.
But the group is this year piloting a program with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund that could eliminate the need for plastic disposal: bulk distribution. If enough people participate, he said, a truck could eventually deliver the pellets straight into a central bin at each participating household. This, he said, would eliminate the need for plastic packaging.
This system might seem a radical idea — but it’s worked in other places.
“That’s the way they do it in Sweden,” said Pahl. “It’s not a new idea, just new in North America.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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