By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.0rg
CONCORD – Founding father Benjamin Franklin said long ago “. . . in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
In today’s world Franklin may have added another item to his list of certainties, garbage.
For years New Hampshire and other states have grappled with what to do with the stuff nobody wants, from furniture to rancid roast beef.
New Hampshire has never — as a state — been responsible for providing a place or the means to dispose of the garbage created within its borders, that is the job of cities and towns, regional disposal districts etc.
The state’s responsibility has been to regulate the disposal and enforce its permits, along with developing long-range plans and public education, but it has not been meeting its obligations due to budget cuts in the Bureau of Solid Waste Management.
New Hampshire and the rest of the country received a wake-up call when China, long the processor of this country’s recycled paper and plastic products, refused to continue accepting those materials because of contamination issues, i.e. other materials mixed in or not cleaned.
That roiled an already uncertain recycling market for those products and threatened to significantly increase costs for cities and towns.
Deputy House Speaker Karen Ebel, D-New London, introduced a bill to establish a study committee to look into the issue, which passed and the committee was formed with her as chair.
What the committee and Ebel soon learned was the issue was much larger than recycled paper and plastic. “We launched into a voyage of discovery,” she said.
The committee held 14 public hearings over the summer and into the fall, and heard from private solid waste disposal companies, municipalities, hospitals, grocery stores, schools, manufacturers, citizens, environmental groups and chemical companies, as well as other stakeholders.
The Committee to Study Recycling Streams and Solid Waste Management in New Hampshire issued its final report recently with 23 recommendations and 39 findings. Read the full report here. http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/statstudcomm/committees/1476/reports/2019%20Final%20Report.pdf
Among the chief concerns of the committee is what happened to the Bureau of Solid Waste Management, which used to provide planning and educational services along with its regulatory functions, but deep budget cuts over the years has left the agency a skeleton of itself now doing only permitting and compliance work.
“From cities like Manchester to small towns like Rollinsford and New London, we heard ‘we are out here trying to find our way on our own,’” Ebel said.
The report notes “Over a decade ago, Solid Waste Management Bureau of DES’s Waste Management Division had an active Planning and Community Assistance Section. It was composed of five individuals who operated in a non-regulatory fashion and assisted municipalities with solid waste management issues and promoted recycling and composting throughout the state. They also worked on updating the state’s Solid Waste Management Plan as required every 6 years by statute (the last update was in 2003.)”
The bureau, unlike most of the Department of Environmental Services is funded with state general fund dollars, not federal money.
In order to provide additional funding for the bureau and additional sources for grants and other help to municipalities, the committee recommends New Hampshire do what most every other state does, charge a solid waste disposal surcharge.
“New Hampshire is not a big fan of surcharges, but in this case we would
do an across-the-board surcharge so out-of-state help would help us accomplish
our goals,” Ebel said. “The overall results would see tipping fees reduced and
more money for our recycling goals.”
She said she intends to introduce legislation this year to establish the surcharge, noting almost every other state has some kind of dedicated fee or surcharge on waste disposal.
A Dumping Ground
The committee also found with the lack of planning, the state is falling behind others in managing its waste streams for environmental and capacity reasons.
“We have been dropping the ball the last few couple of years,” Ebel noted.
New Hampshire has two large private landfills in Rochester and Bethlehem, and a third in Berlin that serves the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District. There is also a privately owned incinerator in Concord.
Three municipal landfills are located in Conway, Lebanon and Nashua.
In the 1990s the New Hampshire legislature established a hierarchy of preferable disposal methods from source reduction at the top to landfilling at the bottom and set a goal of recycling 40 percent of its refuse by the year 2,000.
The bureau uses the hierarchy in determining permit status, but the state has done little since that time to encourage more recycling and reuse programs and has no way to determine if it is even close to meeting its 40 percent goal.
Other states have moved faster than New Hampshire in encouraging or requiring recycling, composting and reuse and in banning certain products from landfills and incinerators such as food waste, which accounts for 20 percent of all solid waste, construction and demolition materials and certain kinds of plastics.
Surrounding states like Massachusetts and Vermont have more stringent landfill requirements that banning food waste and construction and demolition material, and in the Bay State two large private landfills have closed making New Hampshire landfills more attractive and less expensive dumping grounds.
“The Northeast Resources Council provided a comprehensive, eye-opening list of regional disposal bans in its testimony. This makes New Hampshire’s commercial landfills, with no such bans, a more attractive disposal option for waste that has been banned in that state. Additionally, other states, such as Massachusetts, have closed landfills, making New Hampshire a cheaper, nearby alternative for landfill disposal. As tipping fees increase regionally, more pressure is put on NH’s landfills,” according to the report. “Other states have devoted significant funds to developing creative, effective solutions to enable better use of resources, recycling and composting to preserve landfill capacity.”
New Hampshire cannot prohibit out-of-state trash from being dumped in the state’s private, for-profit landfills due to the interstate commerce provision of the constitution.
Landfill capacity is adequate for the next four or five years, but then drops off rapidly requiring creative solutions to preserve the space currently available under existing permits.
“We have to figure out ways to reduce solid waste or we are going to be in a jam,” Ebel said, “and morally, it’s the right thing to do.”
Ebel said the refuse reduction need is also an economic opportunity with no material resource facility to sort the single stream recycling many communities do. The closest facility is in Massachusetts and transportation costs are increasing.
She said the state could encourage the development of an MRF or a commercial composting facility through a public-private partnership if additional incentives are needed.
Ebel noted a Chinese firm recently purchased a paper mill in Maine and is transforming it into a paper recycling operation, and similar things could be done in New Hampshire and for plastics.
She noted other states are way ahead of New Hampshire with composting regulations, saying the states have long required updating that has not been done.
Legislation is likely to set a deadline for the updating and to update the state’s solid waste plan for the first time since 2003.
Proposed legislation would develop a methodology to determine whether the state is meeting its 2000 goal of a 40 percent reduction in solid waste by drawing from other states’ expertise, and another bill would establish a working group with the DES to develop more forward-looking policies for the state’s solid waste management over a five-year span.
The state needs to encourage more cooperation among communities for greater efficiencies and reduced costs for transporting recyclables and negotiating the best price, Ebel said, to help in the roiling recycling markets.
“This has been an amazing process with waste management companies and schools and so many people coming in and saying we really need some leadership from the state and DES,” Ebel said. “The other states around us are moving forward and we have no comprehensive plan to move ahead.”
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London. InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to holding government accountable and giving voice to marginalized people, places and ideas.