Despite 'Ick Factor' and New Fees, Drop-Off Composting Catches On | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Despite 'Ick Factor' and New Fees, Drop-Off Composting Catches On

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Brad Helpap - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Brad Helpap

Flies buzzed, and the pungent odor of rotting food wafted from the compost bins at the Chittenden Solid Waste District drop-off center on Burlington's Pine Street. Undeterred, Brad Helpap cheerfully emptied a week's worth of household food scraps into blue containers already half full of gunk. The environmentally conscious Burlington resident bicycled to the drop-off center on June 28, a Wednesday — it's only open three days a week — pulling a trailer laden with compost buckets and a bag of yard clippings.

He was not happy to learn that the next time he brings his potato peels and coffee grounds here, it will cost him.

As of July 1, customers who are not also dropping off trash must pay $1.50 to dump up to five gallons of food scraps at the seven drop-off centers in Chittenden County. That's where DIY consumers ditch stuff to be recycled, transferred to Vermont's sole landfill in Coventry or, in the case of compost, trucked to the district's massive composting facility in Williston. It's still free to bring up to 30 gallons of food scraps there.

"You should not be penalized for composting," said Helpap, a former Seventh Generation employee. Although he can easily afford the small fee, the Burlington dad, who is teaching his young son how to compost, thinks even a small charge is a disincentive to recycling organic matter.

The fact is: More Vermonters are separating food waste from their trash, as encouraged by a state law designed to gradually increase composting and ban food scraps entirely from landfills by the year 2020. To better meet the demand, experts at CSWD are evaluating the current constellation of drop-off operations and whether it makes sense to move or expand any of them — or add new ones.

They've also noticed that as the volume of compost has increased, so has the tab to haul it away. It now costs $58,000 annually for the district, a regional public agency that oversees waste collection, to transport the food glop from individual collection centers to the operation in Williston. Last year, the organic haul totaled 1.44 million pounds, up 25 percent from the prior year.

Trash drop-off revenues have been subsidizing the compost operation and still will to some extent. But it's important to "recover some of the costs of managing food scraps," said Sarah Reeves, general manager of the district, during an interview at its Williston headquarters last Thursday.

CSWD recycles the organic matter into money. On nearby Redmond Road, it runs Green Mountain Compost, which turns household food scraps — and those from big institutions such as the hospital and the University or Vermont — into rich garden fertilizer that sells for about $6.50 per 20-quart bag. But the $838,870 it generated last year did not cover the cost of operating the compost center and represented a fraction of the district's total $10.3 million budget.

Meanwhile, the new compost fees are expected to bring in just $10,112.

Burlington potter Harold Kaplan doesn't think collecting the fees is worth the trouble. Like Helpap, Kaplan makes a special trip to Pine Street to get rid of food leftovers out of a sense of environmental stewardship; a commercial hauler picks up the trash at his home in the Old North End's Rose Street Artists' Co-op. He said the fee won't deter him, but it might discourage people who are already grossed out by the prospect of composting.

"There's definitely an ick factor," Kaplan said.

Kaplan would like to see residential compost collection roll out in the region to "make it so everyone can do it." Environmental advocates want that, too, but there are obstacles, in spite of Vermont's looming universal composting deadline in 2020.

The law originally required private haulers to offer residential compost pickup as of July 1. Lawmakers pushed the deadline out a year after receiving complaints from commercial trash collectors, who said it would be difficult to put organic matter in the same truck with garbage and recycling. Doing so would require them to create three separate compartments, and the one for food scraps would have to be lined and cleaned more often. Rural haulers said they couldn't afford it.

Suburban ones were no more enthused. In South Burlington, Casella Waste Systems, the state's largest refuse removal company, started a pilot program that targeted 1,200 customers. Only 33 signed up for residential compost pickup, according to company vice president Joe Fusco. They pay $20 a month for weekly service.

"In a lot of ways, organics collection is where regular recycling was 40 years ago," Fusco suggested. "No one has quite figured out the economics of it."

And while backyard composting is essentially free, not everyone has the space or inclination to do it. So more Chittenden County residents are heading to the drop-off centers with their compost and, increasingly, their trash. By weight, the 13.1 million pounds of trash dropped off in 2016 was up 4 percent from the previous year. Trips to Chittenden County's drop-off centers — in Burlington, Essex, Hinesburg, Milton, Richmond, South Burlington and Williston — increased from 339,894 to 356,202 between 2015 and 2016. 

DIY trash removal costs almost nothing compared to hiring a private hauler. And as an increasing number of items are banned from landfills, the drop-off sites attract people who want to get rid of their garbage, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, old clothes and outdated TVs responsibly — in one stop.

In Essex, home to the busiest drop-off center in Chittenden County, as many as 800 cars pull in on Saturdays next to a closed, grassed-over landfill. Sometimes traffic backs up all the way down the long access road to Route 2A.

In Burlington, lines can form as 300 or so cars come through to the drop-off center. Total annual trips to the Pine Street site have increased over the past decade from 23,853 in 2007 to 36,657 in just-completed fiscal year 2017.

Traffic was light in Burlington on the day Gary Gile pulled up in his silver Saab convertible. He threw a bag of trash into a big metal compactor and paid the bill — 95 cents.

"And that's for a week's worth of trash," the retired banker and accountant said with a satisfied smile. To get a garbage truck to pick it up curbside would easily cost $15.

Gile started hauling his own trash about five years ago. "Cost-effective," he explained before heading off to chat with several acquaintances who were also dropping off their household rubbish.

Vermont's drop-off sites are modern cousins of the old town dumps, most of which have been shut down for environmental reasons. "It's such a great gathering point for the community, and people are always saying, 'This is where I see my neighbors,'" said Clare Innes, CSWD's marketing and communications director. "It's a time-tested, timeworn tradition."

Later this year, CSWD will analyze drop-off center usage and locations to study trends and consider changes. The facility in Hinesburg likely has to move to make way for a new town garage. The data will help determine whether to keep it in Hinesburg or move it to another town. Charlotte has expressed interest in getting its own drop-off center, Innes said.

Burlington's cramped 0.68-acre drop-off center could move to bigger digs. The City of Burlington and CSWD have identified two lots totaling 3.8 acres at 195 and 201 Flynn Avenue as a possible new location.

Burlington Department of Public Works director Chapin Spencer said that having more space would make the facility more efficient, modern and customer-oriented.

"The current drop-off center is very tight, and the layout is challenging — both for customers and for staff," Spencer told Seven Days via email. The decision could be at least two years off and would require Burlington City Council approval.

It's a circuitous route to the row of malodorous 65-gallon bins on Pine Street, but Rebecca Rashkoff and Heather Purchase found their way. The UVM students were dropping off food scraps for the first time. Instead of using a pail, they emptied their peelings and leftovers from a white plastic Bed Bath & Beyond bag.

They said a small fee wouldn't keep them from returning. Since composting is good for the environment, they are willing to deal with the mess.

"It's rotting food," Rashkoff said with a shrug, after she emptied gooey scraps into the bin, her nose turned up. "It's kind of understandable that it's going to be smelly."


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