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Talking trash: Where does it go and what can we do about it?

PFAS is found in many products that can end up in landfill.
Jeff J Mitchell
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Vermont has one operating landfill in the state, located in Coventry, which takes in roughly 80% of the state's waste each year.

When you set trash out on the curb, do you ever think about where it goes? On today's show, state waste experts weigh in on Vermont's trash capacity, waste management options and ways to minimize waste production.

Vermont's trash

Vermont has one operating landfill in the state, located in Coventry and operated by Casella Waste Systems. According to Josh Kelly, the solid waste program manager with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, about 80% of the state's trash goes there each year for disposal, meaning 20% of the state's waste is sent out of state to places like New York and New Hampshire.

"Because Vermont is small, I think that is what's led Vermont to having one operating landfill," Kelly said. "The small amount of waste in general Vermonters produce compared to other states leads us to have one landfill."

The landfill is predicted to have capacity for another 20 years, but Kelly acknowledges other waste capacity options will be needed in the future.

However, some Vermonters think the system should change now. Because of waste transportation and the nature of trash, some Vermonters want to see waste management go to a regional system. But Kelly said that isn't plausible in the state.

In addition to Vermont producing less trash than states with bigger populations, it takes money to run a sanitary landfill properly, and it isn't feasible for regional landfills to profit enough to keep running.

"You have to get the waste to pay for it," Kelly said.

There have also been concerns about the environmental impact of transporting waste to Coventry from across the state, but Kelly said it wouldn't necessarily be solved with more landfills.

"We need to address that in all types of shipment of products and goods," Kelly said.

Even with more landfills, trash would have to be transported. And while there are many ways to minimize environmental impacts of transportation, there are only so many options for transporting large, heavy amounts of things, no matter the distance.

"It's just the nature of the way goods move to the market and how waste moves," Kelly said.

Additionally, some Vermonters have brought up the idea of waste energy, which is when waste is incinerated. The state has said this is not a safe waste management option due to human and environmental impact. Kelly said that while it may bring some capacity benefits, it also has trade offs.

"As an environmentalist ... any time you chemically change material by burning it, you have a trade off. You have some energy ... but you also have emissions," Kelly said.

Recycling and other ways to mitigate waste

One way to improve waste capacity is to recycle, and do it properly.

"We can't recycle our way out of our needs for disposal capacity, but that doesn't mean people shouldn't be conscious consumers," Kelly said.

Last month Burlington saw some changes to recycling that can help with this. Lee Perry, the maintenance division director for the City of Burlington, said the new requirement of wheeled, covered recycling carts in the area was inspire by two things: benefits to staff, and waste management.

"One, safety issues with our staff. We were getting a lot of shoulder and back injuries," Perry said. "Two is that open recycling, as you know, if it doesn't all fit in there it can get stacked on the greenspace ... we get a big wind storm or rain storm, it just starts blowing that all over. ... We get this mess and it's no longer recyclable."

Perry also said it's important for Vermonters to recycle properly — that means rinsing out containers before throwing them in a bin, and making sure only recyclables get recycled: no batteries, metal frying pans or other non-recyclables that could contaminate the rest of the recycling and injure workers.

"It takes just a drop of skepticism to get people worked up about recycling," Kelly said. "Recycling is as important as it's ever been. People need to lean into it."

Kelly said there are other ways to limit waste safely at the consumer level.

"There are a lot of products that don't need to be as toxic as they are," Kelly said, like Styrofoam coffee cups that are regulated in Vermont. "If we can do that more, it'll make the waste we do have to manage more benign."

Kelly also said there are things at the legislative level that are a part of the conversation, like the bottle bill — which was vetoed by Gov. Scott in June — and legislation to protect waste workers.

Flood debris and hazardous waste

Kelly said flood debris from last month didn't significantly overwhelm the landfill capacity.

For people still cleaning up from floods, it's important to clean up and dispose of waste safely and properly. Specifically, it's important to separate hazardous waste from other, everyday waste, as it needs to be handled differently. Batteries, paint cans, cleaners and gas tanks cannot be put in the landfill, and could cause injury to workers and environmental impacts if not handled properly.

More from Vermont Public: Tips for dealing with trash during flood cleanup

TheVermont Department of Environmental Conservation has more information on hazardous waste and flood resources.

Clarification: A caller alleged that Casella "meets its permit limits every time." In response, Casella said it hasn't used over 250,000 thousand tons of permitted capacity in the last three years.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.