Vermont Takes on Landfills

Reusable Shopping Bags

Landfills are a bit of a necessary evil. We need a place to toss trash, but when you round up everyone’s trash and throw it in one big heap you end up with a tremendous eyesore that just continues to grow and grow. The state of Vermont is thinking about limiting the amount of refuse headed for the landfills. A bill was passed in the House recently that called for a study to be conducted to determine how different types of waste materials are handled. The plan is to increase recycling efforts so less garbage takes up space in landfills and alternate handling methods can be determined. The bill is currently with a Vermont Senate Committee and two additional measures were added. Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, added a measure by a 3-2 margin that calls for a ban on plastic disposable bags, and the second measure, added by Sen. Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia calls to expand the state’s bottle bill.

Overflowing Landfills Getting Out of Hand

The benefits of altering the trash stream are two-fold. First, non-biodegradable trash piles up and can prevent biodegradable items from breaking down. When you throw leftovers that have overstayed their welcome in a plastic bag and that bag lands in a trash heap, the plastic bag insulates the garbage from the elements. Water, air, and sunlight are necessary for biodegradable matter to break down. Plastic bags cut the biodegradable materials off from the elements and the food, paper, or other materials just sit, stuck in the bag. Over time these bags accumulate and the heap of trash just grows and grows. This entire process is really a shame because within a landfill there are tons of items that if given the chance would break down and the giant monster of a landfill would not grow so big. This leads to the second benefit of altering the trash stream – preventing a landfill from becoming an unwieldy behemoth.

Banning plastic single-use bags is a daunting task, but the benefits are worth the effort. “Those things are wasteful and ugly,” said Sen. McCormack regarding plastic bags. While plastic bags are recyclable the sad reality is that most people do not recycle their plastic bags. There are several reasons for this. Different cities, towns, and counties have different rules and it can be a bother for some residents to keep up with plastic bag recycling efforts. Oftentimes plastic bags are not included in curbside pickup programs. Curbside pickup is such an incredibly easy system – the homeowner simply throws their recyclables into a bin and places that bin by the curb on the designated day. As far as recycling goes it does not get any easier. Plastic bags are usually excluded from this arrangement. If the bins are open and do not feature a lid it is very likely that if bags were placed inside the bin they would not be there for long. Wind could easily lift the bags and instead of recycling the bags into something useful, the bags would become an ugly blemish as they litter streets and become stuck in trees. This would possibly create more of a problem and solve nothing. If we were to take the wind out of the equation, mixing plastic bags with your other recyclables can get a little dicey because the bags can get jammed in the machinery used to sort the items. This can be dangerous for the staff whose job it is to free the obstruction, but it is also just a hassle. To prevent recyclables from becoming mixed together many municipalities that offer plastic bag recycling have separate guidelines regarding how the bags are collected. This is easier for the municipality, but more of a hassle for the resident.

Reusable Grocery Bags Offer a Better Solution

Recycling plastic bags is really just a faux solution. The bags can be recycled into new plastic bags, but as long as new plastic bags are produced (whether from virgin materials or recycled) there is always the risk that the bags will litter our homes and communities, as well as our oceans, which are currently brimming with trash. Stepped-up efforts to recycle plastic bags are noble, and they may seem like a good idea on the surface, but it is not the greatest solution. The best answer is to stop using plastic bags altogether. If plastic bags are banned then the risk of the bags turning into ugly and harmful litter is eliminated. People can implement their own personal ban and bring reusable shopping bags with them when they head out to do their shopping. If everyone brought their own reusable bags then stores would no longer need to purchase bags and manufacturers would find themselves producing fewer bags to accommodate the diminished demand. This would be an ideal situation because plastic bags would just naturally disappear and become a distant memory. There would be less and less litter being created so efforts could be focused on cleaning up the existing problem. The way things stand now it can be disheartening to clean up litter because it is a never-ending battle. For every piece of trash picked up, it can feel like more appears. However, this is an ideal situation, some people back the cause and make the switch to reusable grocery bags and that’s great. For some people, it takes a ban to get them to make the change. Stores have to actually stop supplying disposable bags in order for some shoppers to stop using plastic bags. The drawback of the ban is that it is a law that has to be drafted and re-drafted and voted into action. It can take months or even years before the ban becomes a reality and there will be groups who fight the ban every step of the way. Ultimately, the results are worth the struggle, but it is unfortunate that there has to be a struggle at all.

Expanded Bottle Bill

In addition to the plastic bag ban a measure regarding the bottle bill was also added to the bill in question. Like many other states, Vermont has a bottle bill. Customers are charged a deposit when they purchase beverages in bottles or cans covered by the bill, usually, the deposit is 5 or 10 cents. When the beverage container is empty the consumer can return it to a store and get their deposit back. Studies have shown that litter plummets when bottle bills are enacted. By tying a value to soda cans and beer bottles people are more likely to hold on to them instead of carelessly tossing them aside. This system also keeps reusable materials out of landfills. Like all changes, it takes a little getting used to, but the bottle bill has been a success. Expanding the current bill to include plastic water and juice bottles should be a no-brainer since Vermont residents have been saving and returning other types of bottles and cans for years. Residents can take things a step further and once they return their bottles and cans make the switch to reusable water bottles. Reusable bottles come in metal or plastic and since they are used over and over again they keep trash out of landfills.

Next Steps

Right now the future of this bill is uncertain.  Lawmakers will mull it over and decide what the next steps will be. If passed the plastic bag ban would go into effect on July 1, 2012. Not all of the Vermont senators are on board with this plan – some feel the bag ban and expanded bottle bill could disintegrate the efforts of the original goal, which was to limit trash in landfills. For instance, altering the bottle bill could remove some of the more valuable bottles and cans from solid waste facilities that depend on these items to cover the cost of recycling. Lawmakers are not the only ones with an opinion on this issue either. Jim Harrison, executive director of the Vermont Grocers Association noted that his group is all for reducing single-use disposable bags and they have been working for a while now to make that happen. Harrison is concerned that by banning plastic bags most consumers would use paper bags instead, and there are environmental and food safety issues with paper bags. “We are making positive strides getting people to use reusable bags,” Harrison said. He does not feel this bill will help the cause and at this time the Vermont Grocers Association does not support this particular ban.

Limiting the amount of trash added to our landfills is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Landfills are not going away; they are just getting bigger and bigger and the longer we wait to address this problem the harder it will be to fix. Using reusable shopping bags and reusable water bottles are little steps that can make a big impact.

Head to to learn more about the state of Vermont‘s efforts to reduce the amount of trash heading to their landfills.

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