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Q&A Series: Universal Recycling and Composting in Burlington, VT

This month we hear from Jennifer Green, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Burlington, Vermont. Burlington received a 4-STAR Rating in April 2015. This month we are focusing on community efforts to reduce waste. At the time of Burlington’s certification, the City was three years in to the eight year roll out of Vermont’s Act 148: Universal Recycling and Composting Law. STAR will also host a webinar on October 18th from 2-3 PM EST, that features Burlington and Global Green discussing waste reduction. Register here.

What was the driving force behind the adoption of Act 148 in Vermont?

Vermont has a long history of ambitious environmental legislation going back to the passage of Act 250 in 1970, which wrote the rural character of the state into law. 70% of Vermonters are in favor of environmental legislation—more than any other state in the Union. In context, it’s easier to see why Act 148 passed unanimously in the state legislature, and why Burlington’s been eager to comply with it.

In the 5 years since the law has passed what have been the major hurdles been for local governments?

Rural areas have experienced some of the most significant challenges. Act 148 requires all refuse haulers to pick up recyclables as well as trash, and prevents them from charging an additional fee or separate rate. Because small towns are out of the way of processing facilities—particularly those in the Upper Valley region on the border with New Hampshire—there are concerns that hauling companies will simply stop providing any services to these towns. On the other hand, there’s clearly a need to enforce the legislation properly, because Vermont has only one remaining active landfill. It’s hard to persuade state legislators to make exceptions.

What have been the major accomplishments of Act 148?

One of the biggest benefits so far has been a huge increase in the amount of donations to food banks, soup kitchens, and food rescue operations. Groceries see the economic and social benefits of donating their quality, unsold product to charitable organizations. The law includes a prioritization hierarchy for keeping wasted food out of the landfill: Waste reduction first, then feeding people, followed by agricultural uses including feeding livestock, and finally composting and energy generation.

By 2020, the law bans all food scraps generated by residents and businesses from landfill disposal. What kind of education and outreach is being done to prepare citizens for this and the changes to waste disposal and collection?

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and local solid waste management entities have taken the lead on education and outreach throughout the state. The local solid waste management entities are required to provide outreach and other tools and resources to help communities and businesses, including the waste hauling companies, understand what the law requires and how to achieve it. Burlington is one of 18 member municipalities in the Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD), which has been providing recycling and food scrap management outreach and education for more than 20 years in Chittenden County. CSWD and many other management entities offer backyard composting workshops, on-site technical assistance and many other educational and support services.

How is the City tracking progress on waste reduction?

Burlington’s Climate Action Plan includes several recommendations to reduce the amount of waste generated by the City and encourage better recycling and composting habits for residents that we are excited to implement in the coming years. For its part, CSWD tracks the tonnage of all landfill-bound waste and “blue-bin” recyclables generated in Chittenden County. They also own and operate the state’s largest composting facility, which has seen annual increases of about 20% in incoming food scraps since the passage of Act 148.

Have you given thought to how the Leading STAR Community Indicators program can help track progress?

Implementing best practices for solid waste—and in particular, food waste— management can help a community make progress on several Community Indicators. Tracking and reducing waste clearly achieves the goals of the “total solid waste” indicator, but less obvious are the benefits that these measures can have on food security and access to healthful food: as Vermont is experiencing through the rollout of Act 148, creating incentives to reduce food waste reduces food insecurity by emphasizing food recovery and increasing donations to food banks and other charitable organizations. Finally, reducing reliance on distant landfills and other disposal sites can help a community improve on measures of environmental justice by reducing the noise and impacts on infrastructure and air quality experienced by communities along the travel routes.

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