No Small Task
This month is Plastic Free July, a global movement to invite people to do their part to end plastic pollution. For everyday people like us, that mainly means adopting behavior changes like bringing your own reusable shopping bags and to-go cups and utensils, turning down plastic straws and finding more durable and reusable solutions for food storage in your home. Or as State 14 co-creator Carolinne Griffin suggests, curb your summertime waste by enjoying large piles of communal food with friends and take the “Cone-Only Challenge” with your ice cream and creemees.
Of course those individual changes, while important, will only make an impact if all players at all levels of the system do their part. Governments, manufacturers, and businesses too. Which is why I was pleased to learn shortly after moving to Vermont in 2017 that we’re in the process of implementing a Universal Recycling Law (aka Act 148) that was unanimously passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2012. The law bans three major categories of materials from Vermonters' trash bins in stages over the course of several years: "blue bin" recyclables; yard debris and clean wood; and food scraps. By next year, food scraps will be banned from the landfill, the final stage of the law’s implementation.
Besides the obvious global climate crisis reasons for this zero waste policy, Vermont has a very local and immediate reason for aggressively curbing our waste. As a state we only have ONE remaining landfill. Way up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Coventry landfill accepts about 70% of the trash generated across the state, the rest going to landfills in New York and New Hampshire. Casella, the company that owns and operates the landfill -- as well as just about every for-profit waste management facility in these parts -- is working on approval for an expansion that will buy us roughly another 22 years of time to dump our waste in the NEK. But as we all know, time flies, and pushing back the inevitable won’t be enough.
In an effort to learn more about how to reduce waste within Vermont’s particular systems, I joined a volunteer group at my local waste management district called the Waste Warriors. Okay, if I’m honest I also joined because I liked the idea of adding the title “warrior” to my resume. My fellow warriors range in age from youthful Americorp volunteers to retired grandmas, but we all share a sense of horror at just how much waste our society produces and a desperate hope that there has to be a better way. And while I’ve learned some useful tips about composting and how to properly recycle my trash, it’s also been sobering to understand all the systemic factors working against our best efforts.
For one, of all the plastic produced since 1950, only 9% has been recycled. Two, much of our plastic and paper is actually shipped overseas to China for recycling (stop to think about the fuel consumption involved in that for a second). And recently there’s been such a glut of materials, China no longer wants most of our trash. The impact of that here at home is that Vermont transfer stations and recycling drop-off centers have started to charge fees to accept recycling. As is typical, the ultimate cost gets passed on to consumers and adds a barrier to adopting sustainable behavior. The system remains broken.
Nevertheless, I’ve implemented some good waste-reduction measures at home: cloth diapering my daughter, composting our kitchen scraps, choosing bar soap instead of plastic pump soap, and using mason jars for everything and anything instead of disposable plastic. Still, managing my own household waste feels like a constant struggle. The recycling bin almost always overflows before trash day, the yard waste is haphazardly piled into a heap behind the garage (and seems to now be home to an adorable family of snakes), and living in rural Lamoille County means I rely more than I’d like on Amazon delivery boxes arriving at our doorstep at least once a week.
Have we made progress? The preponderance of excessive packaging in our modern age of “convenience” is absolutely off the rails, but some older neighbors reminded me the other day just how far we’ve come in other ways. They grew up in this area and remember a time when there was a car service station and a golf tee manufacturer here along the edge of the Gihon River. “Everything used to go in the river. Motor oil, lumber scraps, you name it,” one of them told me. “Then the spring melt would come and woosh, it would all just get swept away like one big toilet flush.”
Today in Vermont, people seem much more mindful of what lies downstream and how their trash affects the ecosystem we all live in. I attended an event last fall where I learned about Audet’s Blue Spruce Farm, a dairy farm in Bridport that captures the methane gas from its cows to create “Cow Power.” Their manure waste goes into a biodigester that powers generators that push enough electricity onto the grid for over 300 homes! Innovative waste and circular solutions like Audet’s Cow Power exist; the challenge is pulling together the resources to reengineer our old and inefficient systems. No small task.
Progress is certainly being made, and no doubt government regulations (like ‘em or not) have played a strong part in forcing us to confront the reality of our waste. Government support for infrastructure would also be key in helping us to continue moving forward, rather than letting the free market pass the costs and the harm on to average people. Because community-based volunteer efforts like Plastic Free July, Vermont’s annual Green Up Day and my local Waste Warriors tell me that most people want to do what’s good for the environment, what’s good for our neighborhoods, and what’s good for whoever lives downstream. We just need to work together to make it happen.
Photography by Caleb Kenna