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UVM research shows promising returns for state compost and recycling rules, with caveats

Compost is pictured.
Most Vermonters feel a moral obligation to compost, according to new research from the University of Vermont.

In 2020, Vermont became the first state in the country to legally require residents to compost food scraps.

There’s been some promising returns on the law a couple years later, yet a wide swath of Vermonters are confused about the state’s composting rules. And they’re frustrated that the state can’t compost biodegradable containers and tableware.

Those are some of the key takeaways from newly published research — and the earliest available research — on Vermont’s food waste law. A second paper looked into Vermont’s ban on single-use plastics for restaurant takeout, another law that went into effect in 2020.

To learn more about both reports, Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke to lead author Emily Belarmino, a researcher at the University of Vermont. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: Can you share with us what you're findings say about how Vermonters have taken to the composting law, which is still relatively new?

Emily Belamino
Andy Duback
Emily Belamino

Emily Belarmino: Absolutely. We have seen really great progress just in the last two-and-a-half years since the law came into effect. Vermonters are separating 48% more of their food waste from their trash than they were just a few years ago. And we found very high levels of compliance among businesses, with businesses almost universally keeping all of their food wastes out of the trash.

Wow, that's impressive. So I wonder why are Vermonters confused about the composting rules?

Some of the things that we heard from respondents to our residents' survey were questions about what can be composted, how to compost in their backyard. There were a number of people who, in particular, raised questions about composting in the winter, or what to do about fruit flies. Those were some of the things that came up repeatedly.

I can understand that, having had fruit flies in my own compost. What are a couple of the other ongoing challenges to composting in Vermont?

The other thing that we've heard from a number of businesses has to do with compostable tableware. So in 2022, the [Chittenden Solid Waste District] stopped accepting compostable tableware. And many businesses had shifted to that for their takeout option. And so, without any options for composting tableware in Vermont, a number of businesses raised concerns about what would be the most sustainable option. And that's something that I think there's still a real open question about.

We know that composting is just one piece of the waste puzzle. What is your research telling us about the ban on single-use plastics in restaurants, and has it been effective?

We've also seen great progress in that area. So just since that ban went into effect on the same day, July 1 2020, Vermonters are using six fewer plastic bags per week. Which is a notable number. And we haven't seen that plastic bag decrease offset by an increase in paper bags. And at the same time, we've seen great progress in a reduction in use of things like Styrofoam containers, plastic stirrers, plastic straws, etc...

I want to step back a bit. Can you talk about how your team conducted this research?

We did two different types of surveys. So the first is that we wanted to understand the resident perspective. So the typical Vermonter, what was their experience with these policies? And how were they making changes or not making changes? So we use the Vermonter Poll, which is an annual statewide survey that's put out by the University of Vermont every spring. Last year, when we did our survey — it was run in March and April and had 783 respondents, so really good representation across the state of Vermont — to kind of get the pulse of the state on a variety of topics, including questions related to these two policies.

The other type of data collection that we did was a statewide survey of food business professionals, both people who worked in food service and people who worked in food retail. We had almost 100 responses to that survey — about half of them coming from people who owned or managed food businesses — to let us know their experience with implementing these laws in their businesses.

Although there's widespread support for these laws, Emily, it sounds like businesses, in particular, have had challenges paying to implement them. Can you provide us with some more context on that?

Absolutely. So we definitely have seen differences between different types of businesses, with the costs of implementing these laws higher for food service businesses. And you can really understand that when you compare them to food retail. So things like changing the type of takeout containers you have from expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam to another approach or another type of container can be costly. Removing plastic stirrers, removing plastic straws — like each of these things require some operational shifts.

And certainly if we think about the types of food waste or food scraps that are generated by food service versus food retail, and the volumes — trying to figure out how how to navigate what to do with the waste could be smaller for a smaller foodservice business than a larger food retailer who might have more options available to them.

Vermont has a goal to recycle and compost half its waste. But a recent state report found that Vermonters are still generally producing the same amount of waste they were about a decade ago. What does your research suggest about how we can get closer to reaching that goal?

So there's going to be research coming up in the next few years to understand the breakdown of what types of waste are going into Vermont's one landfill. And I think that will be very illuminating here.

I have some of my own suspicions that are not necessarily based directly on our research. But because we have seen in our work such evidence of improvements of the amount of food waste being diverted from landfill, I do wonder if there are other types of waste that are generated and have been generated in larger quantities in just the last couple of years. For example, medical waste with the COVID-19 pandemic, that could have increased the proportion of different types of waste streams entering our landfill. We also know that people have really changed their shopping habits during the pandemic. And so, a lot more online ordering, for example, can lead to lots of different types of waste being generated there — different types of plastic or cardboard coming into our homes and volumes that weren't before.

This year's legislative session is well underway. Emily, does your research provide any insight as to how lawmakers could tweak these programs to make them even more effective moving forward?

I think there's a lot of opportunities for public education, which might be more at the agency level than the policy level at this point. What are some of the options that businesses can be educated about? What are some of the options for our waste streams moving forward, that can be both sustainable and affordable for our businesses and our residents across the state?

I also think that there's great opportunities for continued public education around composting and thinking about the different ways that we can manage our food waste. We know that even before the law came into effect, many many Vermonters were engaging in composting, and this law increased the proportion of the state's population that's engaged in that activity. But ensuring that our residents have a lot of knowledge in what they can compost and how they compost would be really helpful.

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