Garbage. Trash. Waste. Rubbish. For many, these words trigger images of cans and baskets lined with oversized plastic bags filled to the brim with — as Templeton the Rat from Charlotte’s Web would say — a veritable smorgasbord of who-knows-what. The “stuff” that comprises trash is easy to forget because it is no longer wanted or needed, but have you ever truly thought about what’s inside those garbage bags?
Staff here at the State Department of Environmental Conservation think about it every day and, in fact, even go so far as to conduct a waste composition study once every five years. What is a waste composition study, you ask? It is exactly as you might imagine — a team of intrepid people don Tyvek suits and rubber gloves and open randomly selected garbage bags to find out what percentage of Vermonters’ trash could have been recycled or composted, sorting each item into one of 65 categories. The results are sobering. In 2018, Vermonters sent more than 800,000,000 pounds of “stuff” to the landfill — that works out to almost 3.5 pounds of garbage per day for each person living in Vermont!
There’s no skirting the issue — garbage can be gross. But, at a personal level, trash is simply an assemblage of items that played a role in your life until no longer wanted. It starts with the peel that kept your banana fresh until you ate it. It’s the leftover grounds from your morning coffee. It’s the box your new computer came in. Whatever the item, you decide where the material will go next: into the recycling bin, the compost pail or the garbage can. Vermont has some pretty impressive recycling rates — 72% of the material that can be recycled, is! But that recent waste composition study also found nearly 20% of the “stuff” in our garbage bags was material that could have been recycled. And another 20% was food scraps that could have been composted. Taken together, this shows there are real opportunities to reduce the amount of “stuff” we send to the landfill by millions and millions of pounds a year.
Nov. 15 is America Recycles Day, a time for us all to evaluate what we throw away and consider our role in keeping food scraps and recyclables out of Vermont’s landfill. Looking beyond that — next summer, on July 1, 2020, Vermont’s food scrap law will go into full effect. For several years now, restaurants and grocery stores have been asked to separate their food scraps for composting. And starting next summer, all Vermonters will be asked to make a similar commitment to keeping food scraps — from coffee grounds and eggshells to apple cores and spoiled leftovers — out of the trash. On the same day, a single-use plastic law will go into effect — supporting a transition to more sustainable products and reducing our need for the hundreds of thousands of single-use plastic bags, straws, stirrers and foam cups and containers currently thrown away each year.
The success of statewide recycling and composting programs relies on the individual actions of every Vermonter. Using EPA’s WARM model, if every Vermonter separated their food waste for composting, it would be the same as taking over 7,000 vehicles off the road each year. The number-one thing Vermonters can do to end our trash problem is to generate less waste. This holiday season, plan to feed people instead of landfills by asking your guests to bring to-go containers to take home leftovers. Make a commitment to plan your meals per person to save money and wasted food, and visit VTrecycles.com to find a food scrap drop off center or food scrap hauler to take the work out of composting your holiday food scraps.
Small steps, like regularly bringing your reusable shopping bags and carrying a reusable water bottle and travel mug, prevent waste from being produced. Once you’ve mastered one new habit, you can add another.
Waste reduction is not an all-or-nothing endeavor, and small behavior changes can add up to real and positive impacts. With commitment from all of us, reducing waste can become a normal part of life in the Green Mountains — as much as tapping maple trees and hiking Camel’s Hump.
Julie Moore is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state agency with primary responsibility for protecting and sustaining Vermont’s environment, natural resources, wildlife and forests, and for maintaining Vermont’s beloved state parks. Moore was named to that position by Gov. Phil Scott in January 2017. Moore currently resides in Middlesex with her husband, Aaron, and their two children.