Vermonters Are Complying With Composting Law, Which Means ... A Lot Of Food Scraps

Oct 18, 2020

The state's new law that bans household food scraps in landfills went into effect on July 1. Vermonters are getting on board with the new system, which means transfer stations are struggling to keep up and new businesses are popping up to haul the food scraps to composting facilities.

For the past three months or so, Tom Roberts has been taking his food scraps to his transfer station in Londonderry. But he’s not happy about it.

“I think it’s a big pain in the neck,” Roberts said. “I think it’s a foolish law.”

He says his compost creates a stinking mess at home, and he thinks this stuff belongs in the landfill.

“My wife hates it more than me,” Roberts said. ”So, you know, it’s not a good thing.”

But… it’s the law. So when Saturday rolls around, Roberts drives over with his plastic tub filled with food scraps, and he dumps them into one of the bins here.

He doesn't like it, but Tom Roberts dutifully brings his compost to the Londonderry transfer station each Saturday.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

He’s among customers from five rural towns the Londonderry transfer station serves. This is bear country, so a lot of people don’t compost in their backyards. And whether it’s a reluctance to compost at home, adherence to the new law, or people just getting excited about diverting their trash, solid waste manager Esther Fishman says she’s been dealing with a lot more food scraps than she had planned for.

“When all of this started to really ramp up, we’ve had to stop collection because all of our containers got full,” she said.

Just like a lot of other transfer stations around the state, Londonderry has been collecting food scraps for a few years, and Fishman says she was expecting a slow increase as people caught on to the new system.

Instead, the amount they’ve collected has already doubled. And Josh Kelly with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s solid waste program said that’s the case elsewhere, too.

“Transfer stations are definitely seeing more material,” he said. “And I think it’s just a natural balancing act to figure out how to manage that now.”

Kelly told lawmakers earlier this year that the state would handle the sharp increase in food scraps as the law kicked in.

More from Vermont Edition: Composting 101: What You Need To Know About Vermont's Food Scrap Ban

He says there’s no hard data yet, but he’s hearing that compliance with the new law has been very strong across the state.

“We know this was not going to perfect on July 2nd, so to speak,” Kelly said. “We’ve been trying to work with facilities to have safe and effective management of food waste, and for some it’s kind of a new learning process.”

He added that he’s been impressed with how quickly Vermonters have taken to the new compost program. And he thinks the solid waste transfer stations, like the one in Londonderry, should be able to deal with it all.

Not everyone wants to drive to a transfer station each week to drop off compost, though, and with many of the larger waste haulers in the state like Casella and Myers offering limited food scrap pickup, smaller operations have filled the gap.

Kelly says the number of food scrap haulers in the state has doubled since 2012 to about 30. 

“A surprising number are independent sole proprietor food scrap haulers, somebody who starts out with a pickup truck or a van or even a station wagon,” he said.

"We know this was not going to perfect on July 2nd, so to speak. We've been trying to work with facilities to have safe and effective management of food waste, and for some it's kind of a new learning process." — Josh Kelly, Department of Environmental Conservation solid waste program

Isaac Colby is one of those haulers. The 29-year old South Burlington resident started his one-man operation, Some Dude’s Compost Company, a little over a year ago using his old Ford Focus sedan. But with the increase in demand, he’s upgraded to a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. 

On a recent weekday morning, Colby was making the rounds in Essex. The actual job is pretty repetitive: Stop at each house with a white, 5-gallon bucket, dump the bucket into one of the four bins in the back of the pickup truck, and repeat. 

Some of the buckets Colby dumps are … ripe.

“Maybe this is just me, at some points I even kind of think it smells good,” Colby said. “In the same way, in French cooking you have your mirepoix of like carrots, celery and onions, and it’s just a slightly rank mirepoix.”

Isaac Colby picked up 100 buckets full of compost in Essex on a recent misty morning.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

And some of the buckets are messier than others.

“Sometimes you can just pull the liner out, huck it into the bin and you’re done, other times the liner is a little ripped or it’s a little bit disintegrated and you have to heave the whole bucket,” he said. “And it’s literally a matter of saving, like, five seconds, but it’s five seconds times 100, which ends up being a substantial amount of time in a day.”

Colby is not exaggerating. There are 100 houses on his route this morning. That’s a huge increase from where he was even at the beginning of this year. He says before July 1, he was picking up food scraps at a dozen or so houses. Now, he’s at capacity and not taking new customers. 

“It just all changed overnight,” he said. “Currently I service 380 people in my little Tacoma.”

Colby says the demand has already led to him changing offering weekly pickup to service every other week. He’ll charge people $15 a month plus another $5 if they want an extra 5-gallon bucket. 

More from Vermont Edition: How Composting Fits In To Vermont's Recycling Conversation

Other independent haulers have had similar experiences. Ellen Ross and her partner Will McDonald realized that a lot of their neighbors in Duxbury needed someone to pick up their food scraps. 

“We were joking, like we could do that, we have a pickup truck, like, ‘Well, we have 12, 15 neighbors that might be interested,’” Ross said.

In July, the two started Roots Compost as a side hustle. Ross is a wedding photographer and McDonald is a school counselor. But like Colby, the pair found a lot of demand for their service. Roots Compost now has 250 clients, spanning from Stowe to Jericho, and they move nearly a ton of food scraps each week. 

“Never in my life did I think that I would be surrounded by 250 buckets,” Ross said. “So we have already expanded with another truck, and we've hired somebody. So it's been pretty awesome.”

Ellen Ross, Will McDonald and Wally the dog run Roots Compost from their Duxbury home on the side of Camel's Hump.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

The food scrap ban has only been in effect since July and the surge in consumer demand for services like Roots Compost might wane as time goes on. For now, there’s still a lot of people looking for a pickup.

Cameron Scott, the owner of No Waste Compost in Burlington, says he still gets about three new customers a day. Scott started No Waste three years ago when he was 23. He now employs three people full-time and two part-time, and has three trucks.

“Last month, we moved over 37 tons of compostable waste,” Scott said. “So in Chittenden County, I believe we are moving the largest amount of household food waste specifically.”

Scott says he sees potential for more growth. He says he’s interested in acquiring some of the smaller businesses that have sprung up in recent months. 

“Our goal is to provide the lowest rate, so we're also interested in buying out some of those other haulers, of course, if they want to,” he said. “In rural Vermont, it's really hard to expand these services. I know firsthand. And as we can see from the multi-million dollar larger waste management companies, they don't have an interest in this.”

According Ellen Ross and Will McDonald, the demand for 5 gallon buckets and their lids was so high this summer they had trouble finding them for their new composting business.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Ross, one of the owners of Roots Compost, says she’s glad to be doing something community-oriented.

“Not just be like, this faceless organization that's picking up your unchewed spaghetti,” she said.

Ross says she and her partner aren’t planning to quit their day jobs to haul food scraps full-time, but for now they’re enjoying growing the business.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporters Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman and Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors.