By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The organizational meeting of the Solid Waste Working Group outlined the challenges ahead for the group whose five-year mission is to assist the state Department of Environmental Services in long-range planning and to make recommendations for changes in the existing solid waste reduction, recycling, and management policies.
Mike Wimsatt, director of the Waste Management Division, explained that the group, established through House Bill 413, is a self-directed, autonomous collection of volunteers and that his division’s role is merely to provide information to make their task easier. Mike Nork, administrator of the newly created Materials Management Education and Planning Division within DES, will provide additional resources, including new rules and information on legislative initiatives that are taking place.
The group elected Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London, as its chair. She had served on an earlier panel that helped to develop HB 413, so she brings to the table background experience on the goal-setting as well as an understanding of the underlying issues. She had become involved after seeing the disruption in the recycling industry after China announced it would close its market for United States recyclable materials two years ago.
Reagan Bissonnette of the nonprofit Northeast Resource Recovery Association said in nominating Ebel as chair that it was important to select someone without an economic interest in waste management, as many members of the group have. She said it also was important to select a chair who will be around for the duration of the discussions, saying that those working for a company or nonprofit might be replaced at any time. Ebel, even if she does not get re-elected to the legislature, can remain involved, Bissonnette said.
The legislation creating the working group specified that there be representation from the House, the Senate, the Waste Management Council, owners of in-state landfills, in-state solid waste haulers, companies that reprocess waste into products, the NRRA, cities with single-stream recycling, rural communities doing source separation, the healthcare industry, the Northeast Recycling Council, the Department of Business and Economic Affairs, and the DES, as well as someone with expertise in sustainability.
Ebel recommended that the group plan to mean every two months, with the possibility of having subcommittees working on specific issues between general meetings. They tentatively plan to meet in early-to mid-December, after the Solid Waste Bureau has finished drafting its biennial solid waste report on waste disposal reduction.
By way of having everyone get to know each other, Ebel had the members introduce themselves and their particular issues. Planning, disposal capacity, recycling options, and the infrastructure to handle any recommendations coming forward were some of the matters of concern.
Ebel noted that public interest in solid waste disposal has increased with Casella Waste System’s proposal for a controversial new landfill near Forest Lake State Park in Dalton.
John Swan, who represents Save Forest Lake, was videotaping the meeting and commented afterward that, while he was happy with Ebel’s selection as chair, he was disturbed by her comments about the legal issues surrounding out-of-state solid waste.
Ebel noted that the courts have declared that, under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, a state cannot refuse to accept solid waste from another state, creating a capacity problem for New Hampshire’s landfills.
“As we all know,” Swan commented later, “our state is plagued with an extraordinary amount of waste that is hauled into our borders, to the tune of approximately 50% of what is landfilled, thus taking up precious, existing space. I would hope that the SWWG would examine the efforts of both Maine and Vermont relative to their curbing of out-of-state waste, as we need to address that very problematic issue, not dismiss it at the very first meeting.”
He was happier with Ebel’s other comment, that local land use regulations must be observed.
“Despite the fact that the citizens of my town, Dalton, have voted to enact zoning twice in the last 2 1/2 years, in an effort to stop the Casella landfill project next to Forest Lake State Park, and despite the town select board sending several letters to NHDES to inform them of the fact that Casella refuses to acknowledge local control and submit an application locally for its project, the permitting process at NHDES for this obviously unwanted landfill continues,” Swan said.
Others are advocating for a radical departure from the current focus on simply reducing the amount of solid waste. Karen Lajoie of Charlestown and John Tuthill of Acworth say that the target should be zero waste.
In an electronic letter to members of the committee on Oct. 17, they stated, “Casella, Wheelabrator, and Waste Management of NH run facilities that displace the value of resources by making waste itself a commodity. This mindset encourages high volumes of waste and inevitably leads to expansion plans that polarize and threaten communities.”
They quote Zero Waste International Alliance: “The easiest, first step that can produce significant climate results RIGHT NOW is to STOP landfill-produced methane. Simply by getting COOL — Compostable Organics Out of Landfills — we can prevent potent methane emissions AND build healthier soils.”
The working group’s initial meeting discussed food waste diversion as one way to greatly decrease the amount of solid waste. Marc Morgan of Lebanon said that 15 percent of that city’s solid waste is food scraps and they have drop-off sites for food waste. They accept both meat and dairy waste and compost food scraps on unused sections of their landfill site.
Few places accept meat and dairy waste, however, and Duncan Watson of Keene said banning items like food waste without having a place to send them creates problems. “We don’t have the infrastructure to make diversion happen,” he said.