What Happens To Vermont's Recycling?

Oct 4, 2019

Are people following Vermont’s new recycling laws, and where does our recycling end up? That’s the question Julie Ste. Marie of Troy put to Brave Little State.

Note: Brave Little State is made for the ear! As always, we recommend listening if you can.

Julie, who teaches pre-school, says she’s been recycling since her college years, and acknowledges that she’s “probably a little on the fanatical side” when it comes to minimizing waste.

She takes her students on field trips to the nearby Coventry landfill (“The amount of trash, it’s overwhelming”) and polices the recycling in her household (“I will dig around in the trash and take out containers that they just throw away”).

Full disclosure: After we put Julie’s question in a public voting round, where we ask you to decide which question we should take on, we found out that she’s the mom of our colleague Anna Ste. Marie, who is VPR’s marketing & engagement coordinator. Anna confirmed to us that Julie takes recycling “way too seriously.”

But Julie isn’t alone in wanting to know more about how recycling is going in Vermont. Many of you have submitted similar questions, and this topic got twice as many votes as a question about Vermont beer. You’re serious about this.

Our brave question-asker this month is Julie Ste. Marie, who wants to know: Are people following Vermont's new recycling laws, and where does our recycling end up?
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Like Julie, you may have been following news reports about China’s “National Sword” policy. In 2017, the country announced it would stop accepting “foreign waste,” which included about 40 percent of American recycling. This threw the global recycling market into chaos, and resulted in stories about plastic from some U.S. cities ending up in landfills, for example, and recycling being incinerated.

“I just want to believe that what we are trying to recycle does have a purpose or a use or a place that it can go,” Julie says.

The other part of Julie’s curiosity centers on Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law. The law was passed unanimously in 2012, and has been rolling out in phases. Beginning in 2015, recyclables were banned from the landfill. (The law also includes rules about compost and yard debris, but we aren’t covering those here.) So Julie Ste. Marie is wondering: Are people complying?

“I’m really curious to know if … since the law has come about, if they’ve seen a decrease in the amount of garbage going into the landfill,” she adds.

This is an interesting contrast. Because on the one hand, Julie is wondering if Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law is actually prompting more people to recycle; and on the other, there’s a larger question about whether there’s even somewhere for America’s recycling to go right now.

And the more we researched Julie’s question, the more we realized just how complicated this whole situation is.

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Are Vermonters following the Universal Recycling Law?

To answer the first part of Julie’s question, we turn to Josh Kelly, the materials management section chief with the Department of Environmental Conservation. And Kelly says that the Universal Recycling Law is working.

“From what our data has shown, it’s happening. It’s working,” Kelly says. “Recycling is up, and it has been up each and every year since the law went into effect.”

The amount of material recycled in Vermont has been steadily increasing since the landfill ban went into effect in 2015. And the weight of Vermont’s recycling has been increasing even as plastic packaging has become up to 20 percent lighter.

On mobile? Click here to see infographic.

Every five years, the Department of Environmental Conservation hires a company to do a waste composition study, which includes inspectors opening up random bags of trash around the state.

Kelly says the 2018 study, which cost the state about $200,000, found a 72 percent rate of recyclable materials that did not end up in the landfill. Kelly says the rate, called a “recovery rate,” measures up pretty well compared with other states.

And while it shows that there are still people in Vermont who aren’t recycling, Kelly says the state has not given out any tickets for violating the recycling law.

“To my knowledge there have been no penalties for recycling violations by a resident or business, for disposing recyclables,” Kelly tells us.

When calls do come in to his department, Kelly says the state has been able to work with the businesses or individuals to address the issues.

“We’ve had some complaints from apartment dwellers that they didn’t have recycling at their apartment and we followed up on that,” Kelly says. “There [were] about 50 of those complaints in the first couple of years after 2015, when haulers were required to offer recycling collection. Virtually all of those were voluntarily resolved.”

Still, even while recycling is up — and more people are composting — the state also saw an increase in the amount of trash that ended up in the landfill a couple years ago.

Trash increased by 11 percent in 2017, after a few years of decline. Josh Kelly isn’t sure why, but a state report says this: “Some solid waste managers believe that waste disposal tends to track closely with economic activity. Vermont’s economy has been relatively good in recent years, however state economists suggest that while the economy saw growth in 2017 it wasn’t much higher than in previous years.”

On mobile? Click here to see infographic.

Economics play a role in recycling, too.

When Vermont’s landfill ban first went into effect in 2015, the U.S. was selling millions of tons of recycling to China, and the markets for paper and plastic were healthy. About half of the recycled paper in the U.S. went to China, and haulers in Vermont were being paid about $87.92 per ton.

But with the Chinese markets now closed, Vermont haulers have to pay about $57 per ton to get rid of the paper they collect. And those costs are passed on to consumers who have to pay to have their recycling picked up.

“Recycling has a cost,” says Natalie Starr, a resource economist with DSM Environmental Services, a consulting group from Windsor, Vt. “And the question becomes, ‘Who pays, and at what point?’ Are we paying after the fact when the truck has to come to our curb, or are we going to pay up front when we buy that product and recognize that product comes with a cost to manage it at the end?”

A complicated network

When it comes to the second part of Julie’s question — about where Vermont’s recycling ends up — there isn’t a one size fits all answer. That’s because the final destination for your magazines and seltzer cans depends on where you live.

Listen below to Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb speak with Brave Little State host Angela Evancie and VPR reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about recycling in Vermont:

There are 16 solid waste districts in the state, as well as a handful of standalone towns, that handle recycling. Some manage the materials on their own, and sell directly into the market. This, in fact, is what happens in our question-asker Julie’s area, at The Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District.

But the majority of the recycling from Vermont residents and businesses — about 64%, according to the state — ends up at one of two big processing plants, called Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs. (MRF is pronounced “Murf,” like “Smurf.”) There’s a MRF in Rutland, and one in Williston. Brave Little State headed to the Williston facility for a tour.

Touring the Chittenden Solid Waste District MRF

Our guide is Michele Morris, director of outreach and communication for the Chittenden Solid Waste District, which owns this MRF, and contracts with Casella for operations.

Michele Morris is the director of outreach and communication for the Chittenden Solid Waste District and is Brave Little State's MRF tour guide.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Recycling in Chittenden County has been mandatory since 1993, so Morris says that residents here have had a lot of practice. CSWD is proud of how little “contamination” they have: Morris says 8 to 10 percent of the material that comes to this MRF isn’t recyclable, whereas it’s not uncommon for facilities around the country to be in the realm of 20 percent contamination.

CSWD is also "bursting at the seams" at this location, according to Morris, and needs to update its technology. She says the district is looking to move and expand its operations, and improve its public education offerings, but that process is just getting started.

Morris guides Brave Little State through the different phases of processing here at the MRF. We start by walking across a giant scale, where trucks weigh in and out.

Then we head inside a warehouse-type structure and climb up to a viewing platform to see the “tip floor,” where trucks dump out their contents:

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This is where the sorting and cleaning of Vermonters’ blue-bin recycling begins. About 35 people work in this facility, and most of them are sorters; there are also conveyor belts and hoppers and many very loud contraptions all working away to expedite the process.

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Paper materials are sorted first, then containers:

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Once everything has been sorted, it gets sent through a baler, which churns out giant bundles of cardboard, tin, plastic and the like. Workers take out any extra materials that aren't supposed to be in the bundles, like plastic bags.

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This is where our recycling transforms. It’s where the many jars and cans you rinse out become commodities — products that are now going to be bought and sold on the open market and eventually get recycled into new materials.

The fate of Vermont's recycling

Where to after the MRFs? The woman who can help answer this question is Susan Millett, the director of business development for Casella Recycling. It’s her job to find buyers for the commodities coming out of Vermont; in her industry these are called “end sites” or “mills.” These are the facilities that transform our recycling into new materials.

Casella Waste Systems is a private company that operates in six states in the Northeast. They manage about 800,000 tons of recycling a year, according to Millett, about 100,000 tons of which comes from Vermont.

“All of the material that’s produced at our Vermont facilities is handled domestically,” Millett says, which means that it stays within the U.S. or Canada.

And this was the case for much of Vermont’s material before China’s National Sword policy, too. Millett says she occasionally sold our recycling to China when they were the highest bidder. But for the most part, we are now being indirectly rather than directly affected by the tight global market.

“It’s affected every recycler in the United States, and it caused the market to have huge declines in material,” Millett says. “We’re at all-time lows for prices of pretty much every commodity that gets recycled.”

Susan Millett walks us through where Vermont’s materials go once they leave our two MRFs, as summarized by the table below:

Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

An interesting highlight: Some of Vermont’s recycling is actually going to China, albeit circuitously. Casella sells our mixed paper to a facility in West Virginia that is now owned by a Chinese company.

Millett says the facility turns the mixed paper into pulp, and either manufactures new materials in West Virginia or ships the raw pulp to China. Because even though China isn’t taking our unprocessed commodities anymore, Millett says they still need the clean, “virgin” material for their own manufacturing.

Another highlight: Unlike the discouraging coverage of the wholesale dumping or burning of recycled materials happening elsewhere, it appears that only a small percentage of the recycling from Vermont’s MRFs — at least as far as Casella is concerned — is being trashed or used for “waste to energy.”

The unrecyclables, as seen at the Williston MRF.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

According to Susan Millett, less than one half of a percent of our plastic — a portion of the category called “tubs and lids,” composed of plastics #3-#7 — is not recyclable due to the way it was made. Some manufacturers add what Millett calls “fillers” to their packaging, to make it easier to ship or to keep food fresher. This results in a material that can’t be properly processed into something new.

The rest of the “tubs and lids”? They become new containers for paint that you might buy at Home Depot or Lowe’s, Millett says.

As for glass ...

The astute reader will have noticed there’s a material we haven’t talked about yet: glass. That’s because it’s not something that Susan Millett of Casella sells on the open market.

Instead, the story of Vermont’s glass is different from the other big commodities.

“Glass has been a problem for a long time, because it doesn’t hold any value,” says Kim Crosby, an environmental compliance manager with Casella. “It’s very expensive to process. It’s heavy, so to transport it costs more, and … No one’s buying it from you. You’re paying to get rid of it.”

And the glass you send to the recycling facility does not get turned back into glass.

Remember that Casella owns and operates the MRF in Rutland, where a lot of the recycling from the southern half of Vermont ends up. Kim Crosby says the glass from that facility gets cleaned and broken up into something called cullet.

“And we transport it up to Canada to a facility called 2M, that is making a fiberglass product,” she says.

Casella operates the Williston MRF as well, but it’s owned by the Chittenden Solid Waste District, or CSWD.  And the district is responsible for dealing with the glass there.

Back on our tour of the Williston MRF, our guide Michele Morris shows us the many steps glass goes through to get cleaned and crushed into a granular material called processed glass aggregate, or PGA. Like the glass from Rutland, Morris says this glass sometimes goes to 2M in Canada as well.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District crushes glass into processed glass aggregate, i.e., a lot of small pieces of glass, before paying to truck it to its next destination.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

“But we’re paying, like, $25 a ton to send material to 2M,” she says. “Glass is heavy. So we prefer to keep it close to home and see if we can find local processing options.”

One local option the district has found is nearby, in Colchester. Since early last year, they’ve been paying $5 a ton to truck the glass to a local quarry. CSWD Director of Public Policy & Communications Jen Holliday says it’s then mixed with quarry stone “at a 5 percent concentration” to be used in road projects in Vermont.

CSWD has been in the news lately for how it used to handle glass. Long story short, there were allegations that the district was dumping crushed glass on one of its properties, rather than recycling it. Just last month, state regulators determined that this was a violation of Act 250.

CSWD has maintained that they were using the glass to stabilize a bank and control erosion, which are approved uses. And so they’re in the process of appealing this opinion.

VPR has been reporting on this story separately, but we want to mention it here for two reasons. One, folks in the recycling world are very aware that you, the reader, need to have faith in the system — you need to feel confident that when you take the time to recycle that bottle or can, it’s going to have a happy next life. And any suggestion that that’s not happening, whether it’s a local story or a story about global markets, can rattle that faith.

“I think we need to restore confidence in the recycling system,” says Josh Kelly of the Department of Environmental Conservation. “And it’s hard to do that when people hear that recycling markets are really troubled. And they are. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not manufacturers and industry that are depending on these materials.”

The second reason we want to mention this is that one controversy about glass from one Vermont facility underscores just how hard it is to deal with recyclable materials when there’s no good market for them.

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Even the quarry where CSWD now sends its crushed glass, F.W. Whitcomb Construction, says it’s only using some of that material in its road projects. The rest of it just gets piled up at the quarry.

Of the oversupply of recyclable material, economist Natalie Starr says, “It’s piling up because we didn’t necessarily have the market structure here in the United States.”

Starr says it's cheaper right now to make new glass and new plastic than it is to recycle. So if we’re committed to keeping all of this stuff out of the landfill, we’re going to have to come up with new ways to reuse the materials.

“That will take a long road, and a real change in policy and a lot of investment to create that kind of infrastructure for our commodities,” Starr says.

But what if there were a different way? It turns out an entrepreneur named Rob Conboy thinks there is.

“Glass really was meant to stay here,” Conboy says. “You don’t want to ship heavy glass to then be recycled elsewhere. And we believe we have the solution.”

Local recycling

Rob Conboy has worked at some pretty well-known companies through the years.

”I relocated here about 20 years ago to work for Burton Snowboards, and went from Burton to Seventh Generation,” he says. “Got the first green MBA from UVM, and [I] have been doing renewable startups ever since.”

And while doing that sustainability work, Conboy heard about a product that was made out of recycled glass. It was a rigid foam used for insulation. They’ve been making it in Europe for about 20 years.

He was excited, because the options for insulation — even if you’re putting up a so-called “green” building — are conventionally made out of petroleum, and a bunch of nasty chemicals.

But this new stuff is just recycled glass. It’s flame retardant, no chemicals, and it’s just about the same price as the petroleum-based insulation.

So Conboy has started a company called Glavel. And he wants to make this foam glass insulation right here in Vermont.

Behold, the "glavel," the insulation material Rob Conboy creates from recycled glass.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

On his desk in his Burlington office, he’s got jars of crushed glass that look just like the processed glass that we saw at the MRF in Williston. Conboy explains how he’d turn it into Glavel:

“[Take] the glass, [grind] it into a fine powder, you run that fine powder through a kiln which is about 25 meters long, and at about 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. And it foams up and what tumbles off naturally is this product as a replacement for rigid foam board.”

Conboy says he has most of his financing in place, and a location picked out in St. Albans. He says he could be up and running next year, using most of the recycled glass from the Williston MRF to make this foam board.

Now, Rob Conboy isn’t the only one in the business of local recycling. In fact there are Vermont facilities already processing material from this area, including in Putney and Sheldon Springs. And economist Natalie Starr says we’re going to need innovation and investment in order to recycle more here at home.

“It could be good in the long run,” Starr says. “But it’s not going to be without a lot of hiccups, and a lot of pain and some costs now as we develop domestic markets.”

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All of which is to say that the answer to the second part of Julie’s question, about where Vermont’s recycling ends up, is kind of a moving target right now.

Susan Millett, of Casella, thinks that’s a good thing.

“There are definitely lots of folks out there that have some fantastic ideas, and they will stick,” Millett says. “The recycling market today may be a little depressed, even though things are still moving. But in a few years from now, it’s just going to look different. We’ll still be recycling, it’s just going to look different. And I find that exciting.”

What you can do

Feeling overwhelmed after reading all this? Inspired? Wondering what you can do to improve the recycling process, reduce waste and even have an impact on the market for recyclables? Here are three tips from some of our sources:

#1: Don’t “wishcycle.”  This is recycling-speak for the act of putting something in the recycling bin because you sure hope that it's recyclable. The problem is, when it's not, it can really gum up the works at the MRF — and result in less recycling overall. So as ironic as it sounds, the message here is “when in doubt, throw it out.”

Also remember that special recyclables need to be handled separately, so you can't pitch them in with your newspaper and beer cans. Be sure to check with your local solid waste district to see what it accepts, and how. 

Do NOT wishcycle knives, people!
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

#2: Be a smart consumer. Support businesses that use post-consumer materials in their products."For the future of recycling, we need to care and look for recycled content," says Josh Kelly. "That creates demand. So a 'Buy Recycled' tagline is important, and I think everyone should be thinking about that. If [you're] going to consume a good, buy recycled."

#3: Honestly, just use less. Remember that it’s reduce, reuse and *then* recycle.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund and from VPR sustaining members. You can help the show out by making a gift to VPR or leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts.

Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions. We have digital support from Elodie Reed and engineering support from Chris Albertine. Special thanks to Paul Tomasi, Shannon Choquette, Josh Kelly, Bob Kinzel, John Dillon and Nora Connidis Boydell.