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Recycling's COVID Concerns: Haulers Seek Flexibility On Mandates

A pile of recyclable stuff
John Dillon
A pile of recyclable material waiting to be baled at the Chittenden Solid Waste District's facility. Haulers who first handle the stuff are concerned about exposure to the new coronavirus.

Citing the risks posed by the coronavirus, the Scott administration has joined with waste haulers around Vermont to press for flexibility with the state’s recycling laws.

In normal, pre-COVID times, recycling was something most of us took for granted. We separated our trash, and took it to the curb or transfer station.

But studies have shown that the coronavirus can live up to three days on plastic and metal surfaces, and up to a day on cardboard. So the trash haulers, who often are the first people to touch recyclables outside the home, say they’re concerned about exposure to coronavirus.

Because of that concern, they say the state needs the legal ability to relax mandates if needed.

“I am worried about my men on the street,” said Jeffrey Meyers, of Meyers Container Service Corp. “I got guys coming in that are scared each day.”

Meyers’ company picks up trash and recyclables all over northern Vermont. “There’s going to be certain areas that it’s not safe for my drivers,” he said. “And that’s where we’re looking for the flexibility.”

"I got guys coming in that are scared each day. There's going to be certain areas that it's not safe for my drivers. And that's where we're looking for the flexibility." — Jeffrey Meyers, Meyers Container Service Corp.

Meyers told the House Natural Resources Committee recently that he’s not asking for a blanket exemption from the law that says recyclables must be kept out of landfills.

He said in urban areas, his trucks that are equipped with a mechanical arm can safely pick up large containers of recyclables. But in the rural areas, a two-person crew usually has to physically handle the stuff.

“I don’t expect the tonnage of recyclables to go down in Chittenden County at all,” he said. “We will continue to recycle in certain areas that we can. What I’m concerned about is the areas that I need two guys in trucks and they have to get out and manually pick the recyclables and the trash.”

Myers said that so far, none of his employees has gotten COVID-19. But trash haulers are known to be at risk. New York City has seen hundreds of sanitation workers infected, and at least one death.

A number of states and cities have relaxed recycling mandates during the COVID crisis, including Maine, where communities recently dropped or pared back recycling programsto protect workers.

In Vermont, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore wantsthe legal authority to give the haulers the flexibility they seek. She said lawmakers did something similar when the bottom fell out of the recyclables market in 2018.

“We’re looking for a similar accommodation here,” she said. “Not that we would forego it, but that if conditions on the ground – whether significant changes in markets or, frankly, significant health concerns arising out of the workforce responsible for managing solid waste – necessitated changes in operation.”

Moore also wants to push back the date when food and other organic waste must be kept out of landfills. That deadline is now July 1; she’d like to see it delayed until next January.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. There’s certainly concerns by haulers over health consideration,” she said. “And frankly, we’ve also heard from a number of haulers that are having a difficult time getting equipment or other capital investment” to handle the organic waste.

More from VPR: What Happens To Vermont's Recycling?

But key lawmakers like Addison Sen. Chris Bray, chair of the Senate Natural Resources committee, don’t see the need to change the mandates.

“There are people speculating that there could be issues. But there haven’t been any issues yet,” Bray told his colleagues at a recent all-Senate meeting.

Bray’s position has led to some friction in the Senate, with those sympathetic to the haulers’ arguments calling for Bray’s committee to move the bill. Bray and Essex-Orleans Sen. John Rodgers had a testy exchange recently about the issue.

“So far, we’re not seeing things out in the field that merit those changes,” Bray told his colleagues. 

Rodgers shot back: “Well, everybody in the field is asking for it, and that’s why the administration brought that proposal forward.”

Bray wasn’t buying it. “Well, we’d have to be more accurate about 'everyone,'” he said.

Northeast Kingdom waste hauler Pat Austin supports the bill. Austin said the larger solid waste districts are set up to meet the July mandate to keep organic waste out of landfills, but not rural towns and businesses in his area.

“It’s the statewide policy that’s causing the problems, right? When you talk about a Lunenberg, or a Holland, and this type of requirement, with no infrastructure, that creates some of these discussions,” Austin said.

The new mandate to keep organic waste out landfills will hit this summer just as restaurants and other businesses may be allowed to re-open, at least partially. Jeffrey Meyers said these struggling businesses could be hit with new, $500-$1,000 monthly charges for hauling foods scraps.

“They’re going to come on board probably in another month and a half two months,” he said. “To throw another bill at them like that, if that’s the law? I’m not in the restaurant business, but that’s what we’d have to charge.”

The Chittenden Solid Waste District handles tons of recyclables a year at its processing center in Williston. The district, the state’s largest, says recyclables are not a health hazard when cleaned and properly stored.

“We don’t support discontinuing the requirement,” said Jennifer Holliday, director of policy and communications at CSWD. “We don’t agree that the state of emergency warrants a statewide repeal of the landfill ban.”

Holliday argued that people may lose the habit of recycling if mandates are lifted due to the COVID emergency.

"Even in this type of crisis ... I think Vermonters remain concerned about retaining our important environmental and public health laws as long as we can, and unless there is a specific justification to do otherwise." — Paul Burns, VPIRG

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, also said the mandates should stay. Burns told lawmakers that some in the waste business want to use the crisis to backslide on environmental protections.

“I just wanted you to know that even in this type of crisis, that I think Vermonters remain concerned about retaining our important environmental and public health laws as long as we can, and unless there is a specific justification to do otherwise.”

So far, the Scott administration’s bill remains stuck in legislative committees. Administration officials and waste haulers say they’ll continue to make the case that recycling may not be safe in the age of COVID-19.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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