Four Towns Work on Waste
Recycling Mandate Spurs Area Solution
White River Junction — Community leaders from several Upper Valley towns met Tuesday night to begin the slow process of considering collaborative solutions for collecting and processing the region’s trash, compost and recyclables.
The unusual gathering of almost 60 S electboard and City Council members, municipal administrators, landfill operators and representatives from solid waste committees, among other attendees, was called to discuss the findings of a long-awaited study by Ascutney-based DSM Environmental Services, which looked at ways to manage solid waste issues cooperatively.
Vermont towns are particularly pressed to address these issues because of Act 148, a state law passed in 2012 which spurs towns to increase their recycling efforts through several mandates that are currently being phased into effect.
“One of the benefits to everyone there was that (presenter Ted Siegler) was looking at the waste stream landscape from 5,000 feet, looking at the whole region … whereas each of the towns, we’re used to thinking about the town’s interest,” Hartford Selectboard member Simon Dennis said Wednesday. “He was proposing certain levels of collaboration that hadn’t really arisen yet.”
Siegler, a partner at DSM who helped write the report, addressed a wide-ranging array of risks, challenges and possibilities facing current and possible solid waste collection models for the entities that funded the report, including the towns of Hanover, Hartford, Lebanon and Norwich, and the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District, which serves 10 Vermont towns and owns an undeveloped Hartland site where a landfill has been proposed for years.
Siegler also laid out questions and discussions that communities will need to address going forward, including the limited regional demand for solid mixed waste disposal sites; the future of the Hartland site and the debt already incurred there by building a private access road and bridge across Interstate 91; the future of the West Lebanon landfill on Route 12A and “what is in it for Lebanon” to buy in to a regionalized collaboration; and the possible role that the Hartford Transfer Station could play in offering more consistent hazardous waste collection.
The presentation also addressed options for collecting organic waste — compostable materials such as food scraps and yard debris — ranging from small facilities on a backyard scale to a multi-million dollar facility for the entire region to use.
The requirements of Act 148 include mandating recyclables, which, starting this month, must be accepted at all facilities, and, starting next July, will need to be picked up by all curbside haulers who are carrying away trash.
The law also requires facilities to accept leaf and yard debris and clean wood by July of next year, and for haulers of trash to pick up those materials by July 2016. Food scraps are being phased in, as well, culminating in facilities accepting them and haulers picking them up by July 2017.
Siegler emphasized that many of the activities necessary to improve diversion of recyclables away from landfills are possible on a town-by-town basis and will do best when done in coordination with private companies. He spoke in favor of towns partnering with private haulers on a contract or franchise basis, combined with “pay as you throw” trash fees, which could charge per bag of trash with included free recycling pickups, as a way for towns to incentivize recycling for townspeople.
Paul Haskell, a Sharon Selectboard member who sits on the board of supervisors of the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District, said that a major problem going forward will be addressing the “weird economics” in the form of disincentives for landfill owners to decrease the amount of waste coming into a landfill that could instead be recycled.
“You pull organics out of the waste stream,” he said, “and now you have even less trash to send to Lebanon, and they’re kind of thinking, ‘the more we get the better we are,’ not ‘the less we get the better we are,’ ” because the revenues from trash would be decreasing.
The thought was echoed by several other people who attended the meeting, including Hartford Selectboard member Chuck Wooster.
“For the region, the key question is how to handle our landfills, both the current one in Lebanon and the future site in Hartland,” Wooster said in an email on Wednesday. “It’s like health care, where we pay when we get sick instead of paying to stay healthy. We need to change the financial incentives so that we use as little landfill space as possible, but that’s a regional issue because, right now, Lebanon uses landfill fees to help fund the city operations.”
Not Enough Refuse for Landfills
During his presentation, Siegler said that the Lebanon landfill takes in only about 38,000 tons of solid waste annually, and there is not enough waste being generated to economically justify having both the Lebanon site and the Hartland site operational.
Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton, who is also a board supervisor for the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste District, cited study results that showed the Hartland facility would need to take in roughly 150,000 tons annually to be viable, which is far more than the region is expected to produce.
The West Lebanon site is expected to maintain its capacity until at least 2030, if not longer. As the city reaches that point, the landfill could be renovated or expanded into areas that are more costly to build because of their hydrogeological makeup.
In an email, City Council member Karen Liot Hill called the Lebanon landfill a “tremendous asset” to the city’s residents.
“While it is in operation, we do not need to pay the (sometimes exorbitant) fees that other communities pay in order to ship their waste away,” she said. “We need to steward this asset as wisely as we can so that it can meet our current and future needs.”
Increasing recycling efforts are still beneficial to the landfill, she said, because it will conserve space in the landfill and extend the time it takes to meet its capacity.
Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said on Wednesday that she felt DSM’s work “demonstrated that (the Hartland landfill) is up in the air and very much related to the Lebanon landfill.” She called the Lebanon landfill a major resource for the region while also being a major revenue source for Lebanon, subsidizing its tax rate.
“And far be it from us to call that in to question,” she said, because officials from other towns recognize the need to keep tax rates low.
Overall, she said, the meeting demonstrated “that to a certain extent, there’s some limit to what we can do regionally because we’re a little too small, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things we can do, (such as) offering curbside collection of both solid waste and recyclables, and potentially in the future, organics, and creating some financial incentives to nudge households to send them,” referring to pay as you throw.
What About Hazardous Waste?
In Norwich, Town Manager Neil Fulton said that the town has a “pretty solid program now,” but “clearly as the result of Act 148, we need to deal better with household hazardous waste and we’ve got to deal better with organics, and even though we’re on the high end of what people are doing in the state, we’d like to increase our diversion even more.”
Much of the issue for Hartford, Dennis and Wooster said, is determining whether the town’s transfer station could be regionalized to accept more hazardous waste, such as gasoline and oil-based paints.
“But should Hartford be absorbing all of the costs?” Dennis said. “This is the same old question, right? And how to collaborate around that.”
Currently, the facility is set up to accept hazardous waste, but there are only intermittent drop-off dates for townspeople every six months or so, meaning hazardous materials could be sitting in folks’ garages and seeping into the groundwater, which is bad for the community at large.
While those hazardous waste and pay as you throw may be more pressing issues in Vermont towns because of Act 148, they are still compelling for New Hampshire towns, several people said. Griffin said she was also interested in learning more about Hartford becoming a more regionalized hazardous waste drop-off facility because even if it costs other communities more money, “it may be the right thing to do as far as taking care of the planet.”
Other current risks for Hartford include that Lebanon allows the town to send its waste from construction and demolition projects to be sprinkled on top of the Route 12A landfill free of charge, but the city could start charging at any point, which could cost Hartford roughly $220,000 annually that would cause “really serious” repercussions, Dennis said.
In Lebanon, risks include that a major hauler, Casella Resource Solutions, could at any point decide to bring its waste to other locations in New Hampshire.
Hartford has a dedicated Solid Waste Advisory Committee, formed about a year ago, to help the town navigate these issues and make recommendations to the town, which Dennis said has been very helpful to the Selectboard.
Griffin said she was pleased by the turnout of leaders from around the Upper Valley, and said that the densely packed report by DSM was a treat for municipal policy makers because it was stuffed with “grist for the mill.”
“On a kind of symbolic level, we’re really hoping to do more of this as a region,” she said, “because there are those of us who think that regional opportunities could end up increasing efficiencies and decreasing costs.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.