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Vermonters asked to pile on with composting law set to take effect

  • Amy Record, of Vershire, Vt., takes a short break in the shade while working at her sawmill in West Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, June 19, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Amy Record, of Vershire, Vt., looks over one of her piles of compost on her land in West Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, June 19, 2020. Record takes the food scraps collected from the Thetford recycling center. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Two piles of compost and a pile of horse manure break down on Amy Record's land in Vershire, Vt., on Friday, June 19, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2020 9:33:50 PM
Modified: 6/19/2020 9:33:54 PM

WEST FAIRLEE — Nearly every week, Amy Record takes between 120 and 200 pounds of food scraps collected at the Thetford transfer station and brings them back to her farm in West Fairlee.

There, she sorts through the 45-gallon bins before spreading the scraps out in a field.

“My biggest problem is people throw other stuff in there too. Once in a while I find meat packages still wrapped in Styrofoam,” said Record, an employee at the transfer station.

Sometimes the crows and ravens that visit her farm, on the town line with Vershire, help her by picking out shiny objects such as silverware that end up in the mix.

Record uses the finished soil around her farm.

Starting July 1, thousands of other Vermonters are going to be doing some form of composting too, as a state law makes food scrap recycling mandatory for Vermont residents.

In effect, residents can compost food themselves, pay a private trash hauler to collect the scraps or use a local transfer station’s compost facilities, which may include a fee.

In 2019, Thetford residents produced around 4,000 pounds of food scraps, said Mark McMahon, Thetford’s recycling coordinator. The town started collecting food scraps about 18 months ago in preparation for the new law.

Over the last few years, the state has rolled out other parts of its “Universal Recycling Law,” which was passed in 2012 and is intended to keep recyclable materials, yard debris and food scraps from the state’s landfills.

“A lot of people jumped right on the bandwagon,” said Ham Gillett, program and outreach coordinator for the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District, a nonprofit organization that serves Bridgewater, Hartland, Norwich, Pomfret, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford, Vershire, West Fairlee and Woodstock.

Four years ago, Gillett began hosting backyard composting workshops in those towns to prepare them for composting. Many towns started collecting food scraps at their town transfer stations and coordinating with trash haulers — or area farmers like Record — to turn the material into compost.

Towns are not required to have composting facilities, but transfer stations that offer trash collection are required to offer food scrap collection, and more than 100 facilities around the state currently do so, state officials said. Some town officials in the Upper Valley say they have a system in place ready to go for residents.

“I’m not worried about the July 1 deadline at all because I think we’ve essentially met that,” Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee said. “When we initially set this up, we weren’t sure what kind of response we would get, so we thought having a couple bins out there would be great. Then we quickly had to jump to four.”

Norwich now has six 48-gallon bins and tends to fill five of them per week. The towns pays Casella Waste Systems $26 per bin to process them.

“Norwich is very good at recycling and keeping things out of the waste stream as much as possible, so having another opportunity to do some sort of recycling process, they jumped on board,” Durfee said of residents.

Good intentions aside, the state and towns are essentially relying on the honor system to enforce the new law.

“We consistently prioritize education and outreach first and ensuring that options exist for both food scrap collection and drop-off,” said Josh Kelly, materials management section chief for Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. “I’m not out there sorting through residents’ trash bags.”

The state has put together a list of resources and tips for composting at scrapfoodwaste.org. Landlords who own four or more units are required to take care of composting for tenants.

“The drop-off in particular has grown quite a lot,” Kelly said. “People can’t recycle their milk jugs themselves in their backyard, but you can compost food scraps into your garden if you take the time and practice at it.”

Cat Buxton, owner of Grow More Waste Less and a compost consultant, has worked with Gillett to educate Vermonters about backyard composting.

“The biggest mistake that people make is they do not add the browns,” she said.

Compost is made up of two parts “the browns” and “the greens.” The browns are carbon materials including dead leaves, hay and other yard waste. The greens are food scraps and contain high levels of nitrogen. Ideally, browns should outnumber green in a compost pile by a 3-1 ratio.

If the compost just contains food scraps, “it would rot and it would stink to high heaven and it would breed flies,” Buxton said. “This is very much what an inside of a landfill looks like.”

Another concern of backyard composting is wildlife getting into piles.

“A lot of people are having issues with bears,” Gillett said. “No. 1 is take your bird feeders down in April, before the bears come out of hibernation. It’s oftentimes bird seed that will draw bears into your yard and once they’re there they’ll go looking for other food sources. Don’t ever let your food scraps lay bare. Cover them. Have an enclosed pile. Don’t just dump your food scraps in the woods.”

Gillett also stressed that the state law allows people composting at home to continue throwing out their meat scraps and bones with their regular trash.

“If you’re a resident and you decide to take your food scraps to your local transfer station, you may include your meat scraps and bones because that transfer station is going to send those food scraps to a compost facility where the heat will get hot enough to kill all those pathogens,” he said.

The other challenge is what Gillett refers to as the “yuck factor.”

“A lot of people just don’t want to deal with food garbage,” Gillett said. “They’re OK with dumping it into their trash, but when they have to dump it, put it in a separate pail and bring it somewhere ... it smells. It’s one more thing that people don’t want to have to think about. Understandably, they want to open their trash can in their house, dump everything in it and be done with it.”

Hartford collects and processes food scraps on-site at its town transfer station.

“We don’t really get a lot of people who bring food waste to us, and I’m not sure if that will change with the new law, if more people will bring it to us or if they’ll handle it in their backyard,” said Hannah Tyler, the town’s director of Public Works.

Employees mix collected food waste with a compost pile on-site. Residents are welcome to take the soil for free.

“If all of a sudden we were inundated because of the change, our current method probably couldn’t handle that efficiently,” Tyler said.

Casella Waste Systems also offers curbside food scrap pickup to its residential clients through partnerships with other compost haulers, but is also encouraging people to compost at home if they can, said Joe Fusco, vice president of the Rutland-based company. Casella is still working out a rate system for the curbside service, although it hasn’t been that popular yet.

“It works better in what passes for urban areas in Vermont. We have found there is not a lot of interest in homeowners wanting to pay for this extra service,” Fusco said. “We’ve certainly seen a stronger and growing interest from landlords as the deadline for the law approaches. A whole infrastructure has to mature as this goes along. In many ways with composting, we are where recycling was 40 years ago.”

While the law make take some time for people to get used to, it fits in with the character of Vermonters to care for their landscape and preserve it for future generations.

“Vermont is ahead of the curve because we have such a strong agricultural base, it makes it a no-brainer for us,” Buxton said. “We have a lot of people who know how to manage organic waste of all kinds and they’ve been doing it for a long time.”

 

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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