Every day Americans waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. I’m talking about the 90,000-seat football stadium, not a bowl of flowers. Indeed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans waste a full 40 percent of our food, which most of us then throw out. The fact that food waste (and waste in general) is so widespread in our culture speaks to a pressing regional issue for Vermonters: One of our only two landfills may not get permitted this year. The Moretown Landfill faces the very real likelihood of closing in 2013.
What does this have to do with food waste? For one thing, food scraps represent 21 percent of all waste. For another thing, the Moretown Landfill recently received notice from the Agency of Natural Resources of intent to deny its permit for expansion, in large part due to odors. The only odors you will ever smell from a trash heap come from organics, which are wasted food scraps (and sludge). If you want a stink-free landfill you’ve got to remove organic material. If you want a landfill at all, we all have to dramatically limit what we put into it and even consider trying to eliminate the concept of waste altogether.
Vermonters need to seriously consider how we handle our waste — and how we even define waste. As individuals, families and businesses, we need to consider what we put into — or keep out of — our own, very personal, trash bins.
The Legislature has addressed this issue through Act 148, which phases in mandatory recycling and composting by 2020. Here at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, we have been doing a lot of work for many years toward achieving this goal, including districtwide mandatory recycling; we facilitate composting in 29 regional schools, as well as for 72 area businesses and restaurants. We collect tons of household hazardous waste throughout central Vermont every year. And we have developed a substantial list of hard-to-recycle items above and beyond the basics that we accept at our Additional Recyclables Collection Center in Barre. A few examples of additional recyclables include: yoga mats, prescription pill bottles, sunglasses, CDs and DVDs, and cereal bags. We have a constantly updated list on our website, www.cvswmd.org.
Nobody wants a landfill in their backyard. If we are to respect that fact, we must make sure existing landfills last and eliminate the need for new ones. The last time this discussion came up — in 2001, when a landfill location was being considered in Barre — Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District recognized that the only way to rid ourselves of this issue is to strive toward becoming a zero waste community. And so the district adopted a zero waste policy. All district programing has aimed toward that goal ever since.
“Zero waste” is a term that might make sense to your parents or grandparents; it means use and reuse what you have; be thoughtful about new purchases; don’t spend money on single-use items; make do; and don’t waste. It’s not a punishing cutting back, but rather an opportunity for simple, creative ways to reduce one’s overall impact on the planet. Families who have gone zero waste report their household budgets reduced by 10 percent to 12 percent without diminishing quality of life.
We know that practicing zero waste saves money. Many large corporations have gone this path, among them Burt’s Bees; Hewlett-Packard (which saved $870,564 in 1998, its inaugural zero waste year); and Xerox Corp., which saved $45 million that same year by implementing a waste-free goal. Other zero waste companies include Epson Inc., Apple Computer and Pillsbury.
Corporations do this because it saves money. It stands to reason that if individuals and municipalities followed suit, not only would we contribute to the betterment of our beloved Vermont, but we also stand to save a few bucks. Communities across the globe have adopted zero waste goals, including our own. The list grows at an increasingly faster pace as people recognize that the culture of waste does not make sense.
So how does one go “zero waste”? First, don’t get intimidated by the word “zero.” Eliminating the very concept of waste is the long-term goal. For the short term, we encourage the kind of small steps that everyone can make toward diverting resources out of the waste stream.
One easy way to start, if you haven’t already, is to compost food scraps. Besides adding bulk and stink to trash, food scraps decompose anaerobically in a landfill, releasing methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Even when capturing some of the off-gassing methane from landfills for energy production, we get a maximum of 50 percent; that means the other 50 percent escapes into the atmosphere and contributes to serious environmental issues far beyond unsightliness and noxious odors.
Zero waste aficionados promote the six R’s. You’ve probably heard of the big three: “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” Add three more to those: “Rethink,” “refuse” and “rot.” Rethink how you take resources in and where they go out. Refuse to accept wastefully packaged products or items you don’t actually need. Then reduce and reuse items you already have. Rot — or compost — what you can. Recycle as a last measure.
This can look like shopping secondhand and buying in bulk; borrowing DVDs or books from the library or video store rather than buying them new; sharing big ticket items among neighbors rather than everybody owning one of everything; printing on both sides of paper before recycling it, and so on. If you start with the concept of the six R’s, you’ll come up with your own ideas. You’ll also influence those around you to do likewise. Our communitywide baby steps add up to a lot.
Lastly, consider that if the Moretown Landfill shuts down, central Vermonters will likely face higher trash bills as haulers end up driving farther.
Shipping trash out of state does not solve the problem, nor does driving it to Coventry (the site of Vermont’s only other lined landfill). It prolongs the problem and requires every household to dig deeper to pay for trash removal.
By working toward a zero waste lifestyle, we save money, prolong the lives of our landfills, keep harmful gases out of the atmosphere, and reduce or eliminate most of the offensive odors causing problems in the first place.
For more ideas for going zero waste, go to our website at www.cvswmd.org or call 229-9383.
Cassandra Hemenway Brush is the zero waste outreach coordinator at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.MORE IN Commentary
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