NH’s long-overdue plan for trash disposal criticized for lacking clear strategies

  • Craig Paterson and his son Will Paterson unload at the Lebanon landfill on Tuesday, Sept., 13, 2022 in West Lebanon, N.H. Craig Paterson remarked how much the landfill has changed. He remembers coming to the site as a kid with his father, who used to shoot rats with a .22-caliber rifle. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has drafted a new statewide solid waste plan. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • A pile of construction demolition and wood waste sit at the Lebanon landfill on Tuesday, Sept., 13, 2022, in West Lebanon, N.H. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has drafted a new statewide solid waste plan. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2022 2:58:17 AM
Modified: 9/15/2022 2:57:47 AM

LEBANON — A new statewide solid waste plan, which hopes to encourage more sustainable management, has been drafted after almost two decades of delay at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

New Hampshire aims to reduce disposal of municipal solid waste, as well as construction and demolition debris, by 25% in 2030 and by 45% by 2050. The plan — which was last updated in 2003 — is to be addressed over 10 years and hopes to help get the state to its reduction goals by limiting waste at the source, as well as increasing waste diversion.

“We’re basically setting a framework for the next 10 years to direct our work: promoting recycling, more composting, things in the vein of sustainable waste management, not promoting landfills,” said Michael Nork, DES Supervisor of Materials Management.

But the draft has attracted considerable criticism from many corners of the waste management sector as well as conservation advocates. The 18-page draft has prompted just under 400 pages of public comment.

Many people don’t see the plan as providing practicable strategies for how the state is going to clean up its waste problem.

Despite being “the least preferred method,” landfills “comprise a significant portion of New Hampshire’s overall waste management capacity,” the draft says. Public landfills have limited service areas and aren’t obligated to take trash from beyond their jurisdiction. But this isn’t the case with commercial landfills, which make up half of New Hampshire’s landfill stock. These private facilities can receive waste (and profitable disposal fees) from anywhere.

More aggressive management in other New England states, such as waste bans in Massachusetts — which has prohibited the disposal of items like metal containers and yard leaves — and Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law, pushes waste that can’t be disposed of at its point of origin into New Hampshire.

In 2020, 47% of the waste disposed of in New Hampshire was generated out of state.

“Waste is commerce,” Marc Morgan, solid waste manager for the city of Lebanon, said. “There’s an easier flow into New Hampshire because we don’t have laws to restrict it.”

Morgan is also a member of the Solid Waste Working Group, created to assist DES with planning and policy initiatives. Demanding more direction from the drafted plan, and confronting the “continued lack of guidance” from NHDES, Morgan submitted his own public comment.

The draft doesn’t include enough concrete language, or actionable steps, for municipal waste managers to meet the state’s goals, leaving cities and towns to figure out strategies on their own without state resources, Morgan said.

Further, as New Hampshire has no state recycling infrastructure and instead relies on the private sector, cities like Lebanon also shoulder the burden of recycling on their own.

“The draft doesn’t even discuss how we’re going to encourage more recycling activities in the state,” Morgan said.

The plan was supposed to be updated more than a decade ago based on deadlines set by the Legislature, but the trash can kept getting kicked down the road.

DES officials chalk the vague wording up to a narrow jurisdiction, and they attribute the delay to a lack of resources. The Waste Division of DES doesn’t have its own funding mechanism, and as a result must draw from the state’s general fund, leaving waste management efforts usually strapped for cash.

Morgan helped write the 2003 draft when he was working for the state as recycling coordinator. Now that position doesn’t even exist. The planning branch of DES was eliminated in a series of budget cuts, and only reinstated with two members after 2019. This leaves New Hampshire playing catch-up with the other states in the region, which take advantage of its lax disposal restrictions in the meantime.

“We’ve had more than 15 years of no planning in New Hampshire, and this is where we are now,” Morgan said. “What will happen in the future is what’s already happening now — waste is getting more expensive to get rid of, because regionally there are fewer places to put it. So what’s available for disposal in terms of putting a bag of garbage in is getting more valuable. Eventually it’s going to come home to roost and we’re really going to wonder ‘Where are we going to put this?’ ”

State Rep. Karen Ebel, a Democrat from New London, chairs the Solid Waste Working Group. While Ebel thinks the draft plan needs more concrete language, she’s hopeful that the pressure from the public comments will enforce some change.

“I’m glad that we’re finally going to have a long-range plan that has many aspects of the solid waste issue in it,” Ebel said. “Now we have some things that we can sink our teeth into.”

But once a finalized plan is released, implementation doesn’t end with the DES.

“The Legislature is going to have a really important role in this, and we’re going to have to have the political will to put some stronger laws into place as to what can be landfilled, and what recycling requirements will be put into place,” Ebel said.

“You can plan and plan, but it needs people to carry out the work.”

A final version of the draft will go before the Legislature on Oct. 1.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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