July 28, 2017

Jobs may be slow to follow waste diversion efforts

Trevor Mance, founder of TAM's Waste Management, stand between piles of composted wood chips, hay and a mushroom-based material at the company's compost division in Bennington. Seen here he's holding pieces once used for packing materials made by NY-based company Ecovative products, which uses mushroom roots and organic matter that grows into a durable plastic alternative. PHOTO BY ROBERT LAYMAN

Trevor Mance launched the composting division of TAM Waste Removal four years ago, hoping to make better commercial use of food scraps and other biodegradable materials from the trash his company hauls.

While composting has been good for TAM’s “green image,” and for employment — the company added 3 1/2 new jobs devoted to composting — Mance said it’s been unprofitable so far.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to pay,” Mance said. “But we are pushing really hard because we believe in it. We’re doing it more for the environment.”

Mance started TAM as an after-school venture in Shaftsbury in 1996. The business has grown into a regional waste hauling company with 15 trucks and 54 employees working in three divisions: recycling, waste management and composting.

The company serves 14 communities in southern Vermont, and also parts of Massachusetts and New York. Mance said he started the composing division without reliance on state subsidies that are used to support small composting programs like his in the state.

He believes that food diversion programs that promote composting will require taxpayer subsidies if they are to be successful in the long-term. He said there just isn’t enough built-in capacity, infrastructure or demand for compost and other organic products in the present market environment in rural Vermont.

“We’re at the leading edge and at the bleeding edge” of the composting-trend curve, Mance added.

In 2020, Vermont’s Universal Recycling law (Act 148) will ban the disposal of food scraps in trash. The Vermont Legislature passed the law in 2012 with a gradual implementation phase.

As of July 1, generators of 18 or more tons of food waste per year are required to separate food scraps from the waste stream.

Larger producers like supermarkets, colleges, schools, hospitals and restaurants have already begun separating food scraps and sending them to composting facilities, anaerobic digesters or farms.

“Moving food scraps out of the trash will help us achieve our goal of reducing landfill waste by 25 percent by 2020,” said Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Emily Boedecker.

DEC spokesman Josh Kelly said the state’s goal is to stop the “dead-end life cycle” of food waste that usually ends up rotting in landfills, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Unused food items from supermarkets that were previously thrown into the trash now stock the shelves of food pantries. The Vermont Food Bank recorded a 40 percent increase in food donations as a result of the universal recycling law, Kelly said.

Act 148 is also expected to create “green” jobs in areas such as waste management, processing and composting, he said.

Kelly said that, based on “informal” data, for every new landfill job, six jobs in recycling and composting are created, “because the (waste) materials live on” as commercial byproducts.

“It’s informal right now and it’s hard to get the data. It’s not something that we track,” Kelly said. “The best data that food-waste reduction creates jobs would be a recent study in Massachusetts that highlights a 150 percent increase in organic jobs.”

In 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection reported the state’s 2014 food waste ban produced more than 900 jobs and stimulated $175 million in economic activity during the first two years of the ban.

The law requires that any business that disposes of one ton or more a week of food waste remove it from the waste stream and reuse it. The waste will begin a second life as compost or animal feed, or to create renewable energy.

However, Vermont doesn’t compare well with Massachusetts in terms of total population, market size, infrastructure or scale of operations to handle solid waste, said Joseph Fusco, vice president of Casella Waste Systems Inc., one of the largest landfill operators in the Northeast.

Founded in 1975, the Rutland-based waste management company owns or operates 10 landfills, 26 solid-waste collection businesses, 86 waste transfer stations, and 11 recycling facilities, and has nearly 3,000 employees in seven states.

While mandatory food diversion makes “a lot of environmental sense,” at least in the short-term, Fusco said, it’s “really a challenge economically.”

“It’s a good idea to pull any resource out of the waste stream. Environmentally, there’s no question it’s a good idea,” he said. “But it’s so early in the process no one quite knows what will happen economically, and technologically. We need to have the patience to figure it out.”

On a wider scale, green jobs in organics and composting, solar power and renewable energy have provided “great opportunities” for addressing climate change, but the “economic boom” from green initiatives is still years away, he said.

Mance said landfill operators also have to bear much of the cost of diverting food waste from landfills to composting.

“The long-term success of food waste diversion will require subsidies,” he said. At present, composting is “not profitable” for small generators like TAM, “and we are struggling with that,” he said.

Each year TAM produces 6,000 and 8,000 cubic yards of finished compost for sale, but 28,000 yards of food scraps are needed for that amount, he said.

In late June, the DEC and the High Meadows Fund announced awards from two grant programs, totaling nearly $100,000, to help residents compost in their back yards and drop off food scraps at town transfer stations.

“Food scraps make up nearly one-third, by weight, of what Vermonters throw away. Diverting food scraps from trash will reduce the state’s dependence on landfilling and make better use of the nutrient-rich material,” according to a news release from the DEC.

DEC in addition has granted over $40,000 to 12 solid waste districts and alliances to reduce the cost of backyard compost bins by half.

“We want people to understand what’s changing. When it comes to enforcement, we give people a lot of chances to get it right. This isn’t a law about looking into people’s trash,” Kelly said.


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