Vermont not meeting its recycling goals

Vermont is still not meeting its goal of recycling and composting half its waste, according to a new report from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We need to do more with waste reduction,” said Josh Kelly, the department’s solid waste program manager and the author of the report. 

Vermonters still generate about the same amount of waste as they did 10 years ago, when the state’s Universal Recycling Law was passed, the report says. Meanwhile, the state’s only landfill, in Coventry, has only about 20 years’ capacity left. 

“We’re getting buried in our own trash, and this report from Josh Kelly brings it home for Vermont,” said state Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Committee on Environment and Energy.

In addition, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are threatening recycling, composting and waste disposal, Kelly said. The report proposes halting the production of these chemicals, which are found in many consumer products, from clothes to furniture, carpets and food packaging. 

“It’s a sleeping giant that we’re all going to need to deal with in the coming years,” Sheldon said. “It’s highly toxic, and it’s in all of us.” 

The report notes it is increasingly costly for municipalities to treat these chemicals in drinking water, wastewater, landfills, recycling and composting. It calls the Vermont law to ban PFAS in food packaging — which takes effect July 1 — “a good first step.”

In addition, Kelly said, the cost to municipalities of collecting household hazardous waste, such as paint, paint thinner and pesticides, has skyrocketed over the past five years. He said when a resident brings a carload of these chemicals to the dump, it can cost a municipality up to $400 to recycle them. 

The report also says rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are causing fires at solid waste and recycling facilities. The department supports including them in the Vermont battery recycling program, which it calls one of the most successful in the country. 

Kelly said the market for recycling in general has dropped considerably. Recently, he said, there has been a push to include bottles containing water, flavored water, tea drinks and juice in the state bottle law, which charges a five-cent deposit for every bottle sold. The problem, Kelly said, is that redemption centers do not have the space to sort these additional bottles. In recent years, he said, they have also struggled to hire the staff needed to handle the volume. 

Currently, bottles are sorted by brand, which means they end up in more than 100 different sorts, Kelly said. That is done to charge each brand for the number of its bottles that are recycled, he said.

“That means that that employee needs to keep in their head 100 or more brands and sort them by brand in order for the system to work,” Kelly said. He said if the bottle law is expanded to include additional beverage bottles, it would not work without other modifications.

Kelly said both recycling and the expansion of the bottle law could be supported by making manufacturers cover the cost of collecting recyclables. He suggested changing the system so that bottles could be sorted by material, such as glass, plastic or aluminum, rather than by brand.

“We have a consumer economy that doesn’t require producers to be responsible for the products they are selling or even the packaging that is related to those products,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon’s committee is hearing testimony this week on a hazardous waste bill that would make producers fund reclamation programs that solid waste management districts run. Kelly is scheduled to testify Wednesday. 

“There seems to be agreement that this is an urgent matter that we can do something about,” Sheldon said.

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