Our federal government and state agencies, along with many environmental groups, have undertaken great efforts to educate citizens over the years about the merits of recycling and reuse, and yet we are still burying tons of “garbage” into the earth on a daily basis. There have been cost incentives for trash pickup linked to recycling; recycle so you don’t have to pay for another bag of garbage to be carted away by the trash haulers. Even with education and incentives our landfills are filling up and closing, and many are left “holding the bag” while finding ways to address the issue of waste management. The next attempt is to use regulation to divert certain waste from the landfill. Will this approach work to decrease our waste disposal?

Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (Act 148)Over 64 tons of waste was generated on Sterling College’s campus in 2014. Fortunately, we were able to divert 29% of the waste by recycling, composting, and reusing material before sending the waste to Waste USA Landfill in Coventry, Vermont. Our waste diversion included 13.2 tons recycled, .8 tons composted, and 5 tons of materials reused, donated, or re-sold (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rate System 2015, Sterling College). This type of waste management comes naturally to us at Sterling as it is part of our mission to be stewards of the environment; now this type of waste management is Vermont law. But we are still below the state average waste diversion rates.

According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Waste Management and Prevention Division, Vermont waste diversion rates have fluctuated between 30 – 36% over a ten year period (Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Report to the Legislature, 2013).   Capturing more recyclables will help increase the diversion rate and save the very limited space in the landfill. In 2012, the Vermont Legislature responded to low diversion rates and unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law (Act 148) with the goal of diverting a significant portion of the state waste stream from our landfills.

Act 148 includes bans on disposal of certain solid waste from landfills including:

  • Aluminum and steel cans
  • Aluminum foil and aluminum pie pans
  • Glass bottles and jars from food and beverages
  • PET and HDPE plastic containers, bottles and jugs
  • White and mixed paper
  • Newspaper, magazines, paper mail, and envelopes
  • Box board
  • Paper bags
  • Leaf and yard debris and clean wood waste by July 1, 2016, and
  • Food scraps by 2020

A full summary of the law can be found at http://www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/wastediv/solid/documents/UR_SummarySheet_CURRENT.pdf

Many Vermonters are wondering how successful this law will be and how it will be carried out. What we do know is that recycling infrastructure will be increased (more towns will offer more free recycling) and trash haulers will provide recycling options for customers. But will the haulers be passing costs onto the customers? Additionally, there are many people wondering how the law will be enforced. Who will be opening our garbage bags to check if I am throwing away items that could be recycled? Your trash hauler can answer a lot of these questions. Others are worried that the law will lead to a rise in illegal dumping. Time will tell how effective this law will be in increasing our waste diversion rate.

Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law (Act 148)During the 2015 spring semester, the Environmental Policy and Law class went to the Waste USA Landfill in Coventry, Vermont, to see how it is operating under state and federal waste management regulation, clean air and water laws, and other environmental statutes. We saw firsthand where Sterling College’s waste ends up. After meeting with Lenny Wing from Casella Waste Systems (operators of the landfill), we came home with a greater awareness about how much buried deep into the earth. Students in the course were appalled at the waste and someone suggested that every American should be required to visit their landfill to see where their trash goes and how it is being “managed.”

What can we do back on campus? It’s pretty clear that Sterling needs to work harder to divert waste from the landfill, and be sure we are at least in line with the state diversion rate, or exceed it. We need to ensure that we are in compliance with Act 148. We can be an example on a small scale how a community can consciously divert waste and embrace the 5 “R”s to Sustainability, as defined by the Sustainable World Coalition: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse, Rot (compost), and Refuse (sorting our waste)!

Photography by Farley Brown.

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