By Clare Innes
Why does Vermont care what you do with your food scraps?
It all started about a jillion years ago, when cave-dwelling humans needed somewhere to dump their leftovers. They tossed their banana peels into a hole in the ground and called it “Landfill 1.0.” Of course, whatever they tossed into it came directly from nature, so it broke down quickly. Plus, there was a lot of land zoned as “away,” thus available for siting their refuse caches.
Flash forward to today. Entire civilizations, industries, and products for survival and flattery have come and gone, each iteration increasingly complex and synthetic. We’ve walked on the moon. We can hold most knowledge in the palm of our hands. We can harness laser beams to send cats flying about the room. One thing that never changed was our habit of digging holes in the ground to house our leftovers.
In the latter half of the 20th century, we realized our holes full of trash were polluting our waters and poisoning our land. So we passed legislation requiring that our trash holes be lined with plastic and regulated. Enter “Landfill 2.0.” (Still essentially a hole in the ground.)
Along the way, we discovered that our increasingly synthetic leftovers were taking hundreds of years to break down. So our holes began filling up more quickly, forcing us to look for more spaces to dig more holes to fill with more trash.
In the intervening millennia, the planet’s inventory of land qualifying as “away” decreased as our population increased. There are so many of us now, that one person’s “away” has become another person’s backyard, cellar hole museum, or frisbee golf fairway. Apply that to Vermont. That, combined with geological limitations, renders most of Vermont out of the running for a new landfill. Vermont’s only current landfill is owned by a private company and located near the Canadian border in Coventry.
In the airless, lightless tomb of a landfill, even items similar to what our cave-dwelling ancestors tossed — apple cores, yard debris, kindergarten macaroni art — do not break down as quickly as when the saber-toothed raccoons and chipmunks helped winnow down the detritus. Even worse, when natural materials such as food, paper, and yard debris end up in a landfill, they generate a type of methane that is about 20 times more damaging to the planet than carbon dioxide. It is past time to focus on downsizing our methane footprint.
All of this adds up to why the Green Mountain State cares so deeply about what you do with your food scraps. The Legislature even voted unanimously (unanimously!!) to regulate what you do with them.
The Vermont General Assembly passed Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling and Composting Law, in 2012. It bans food scraps from landfill disposal on a rolling basis over six years. As of July 1, 2017, many businesses are required to keep food out of the trash. In 2020, food scraps will be banned from the landfill for all Vermonters.
This is a great opportunity for people to start a compost bin in their backyard, find a farmer who would love to have those food scraps, or take them to a composting facility or drop-off center where your scraps will be used to produce energy or compost.
It is also an opportunity for more small-scale food scrap collection companies to tap into the pent-up demand for this service. It’s a difficult material to collect and transport, but companies are already popping up to serve this market. The current list is at 14 companies and growing—search for “food scrap haulers directory” on Vermont.gov to find one near you.
Nothing focuses the wits like a deadline, and the deadlines under Act 148 have already inspired positive change, helping us get our act together and pull more products into the “circular economy,” where resources are used and used and used again—not wasted in a hole in the ground.
Claire Innes is the former marketing coordinator at Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) in Williston, Vermont. For more information visit CSWD.net, or call their hotline at 802.872-8111.