Decreasing single use waste focus of legislative panel

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Casella Waste Systems recycling
Employees of Casella Waste Systems sort plastic recyclables at the Chittenden Solid Waste District’s ‘material recovery facility.’ Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

Even as Vermonters ready for a July 2020 ban on grocery store plastic bags and on trashing food scraps, a legislative panel is considering ways to further cut down on waste from single use products. 

At a Tuesday meeting in the Statehouse, lawmakers and other members of the single use products working group debated options, including expanding bottle bill recycling and requiring manufacturers to make products with post-consumer recycled content. 

An endocrinologist testified, however, that plastics recycling does little to nothing to address the health concerns of plastic pollution.

Vermont has a goal of diverting 50% of waste from landfills, Cathy Jamieson, solid waste program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told meeting attendees. 

“We have not yet achieved that, unfortunately,” she said, adding that Vermonters currently divert their waste at a rate of 36%. While Vermonters recycle 72% of so-called “blue bin” recyclables, many products cannot be recycled.

Jamieson had three main recommendations for the committee. One was creating an extended producer responsibility program for paper and plastic that puts more of the onus on manufacturers to recycle those products, similar to what’s in place in Oregon and Washington. 

She also recommended a state ban on single use products that are not recyclable or biodegradable and to require manufacturers to use a certain amount of post-consumer recycled content in their products. 

Martin Wolf, sustainability director for the green household  products manufacturer Seventh Generation, said packaging for its products is now 87% recyclable and the company uses 86% recycled content in its products. Seventh Generation would like to see PET, or #1 and #2, plastics kept separate from blue bin recycling to reduce contamination.

“Mixing materials so they have to be separated at a materials recovery facility makes no sense,” read Wolf’s written testimony. 

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Vermont has two materials recovery facilities, or “MRFs,” that sort single stream recycling.

Jennifer Holliday, director of public policy and communications for Chittenden Solid Waste District, said that the Williston MRF could sort more recyclables if it had technological upgrades and relied less on human sorting. She said Vermonters actually do relatively well at not contaminating their recycling bins with nonrecyclables. 

She added that CSWD thinks the bottle bill works better for turning recycled glass back into containers than MRF recycling. Vermont has a deposit on containers containing carbonated beverages, beer, wine and liquor, and redeemed glass containers generally go in a different recycling stream.

Dr. Pete Myers, CEO of Environmental Health Sciences and a faculty member of Carnegie Mellon University, testified to the committee about plastics toxicity.

“Frankly, it’s a lot worse than we could have imagined 30 years ago,” he said. 

Many of the ingredients that go into various kinds of plastics, from additives down to individual molecules, are endocrine disruptors that essentially “hack hormones,” he said. 

Myers, an endocrinologist, showed photos of two spliced open mice on the screen: one that looked relatively healthy, and another with a distended bladder and nonfunctional kidneys. The one on the right had been exposed to 20 parts per billion of bisphenol A, or BPA — an industrial chemical used to make plastic food and beverage containers. Vermont banned BPA in 2012. 

He also pointed out that plastics are a “key suspect” in the 50% decline in sperm count in the past five decades in Western countries. 

The way regulatory agencies assess toxicity of new chemicals is “deeply flawed,” he said, and needs to be reformed to ensure products are safe. Toxics regulation relies on testing health impacts of higher doses to predict safe doses but endocrine disruptors do not follow a linear, safer at lower doses pattern, said Myers. 

He also expressed skepticism that encouraging recycling of potentially toxic products will address safety concerns about plastics pollution. 

“I think it’s time to acknowledge that recycling is really the fig leaf of rampant consumerism,” he said. 

The committee also heard from two environmental regulators in Maine about the development of their new extended producer responsibility programs. 

Elena Bertocci, environmental specialist with Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, said that the state is considering charging producers a recycling fee that would fund municipal recycling. If producers collect and recycle their products, they don’t have to pay the fee. 

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, reminded committee members that their charge was to evaluate the current state of single-use products management and recommend possible improvements by December, not “solve the plastics challenge.” 

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