Like a nagging parent, Ted Coles deals every day with the food scraps left on Vermonters' plates. Coles works with the Central Vermont Solid Waste District's compost collection program. On this day, his first pickup is in Barre. From totes of coffee grounds at Duncan Donuts to food scraps at the Cornerstone Pub, the compost trucks service more than 100 customers in the Central Vermont region, diverting tons of food scraps from going to the landfill.
"If more people composted throughout, we would have less of a landfill issue," Coles said. "So, the more we keep out, the longer the landfill lasts, better for the Earth."
The operation, which has been running for over a decade, is a key example of what will be needed to comply with Act 148, the state's groundbreaking solid waste law approved last spring.
"In Vermont we're cutting edge for this stuff and there are a lot of people watching this to see how it goes," said Cassandra Hemenway of the Central Vermont Solid Waste District.
From restaurants to supermarkets and school cafeterias, Americans are a wasteful bunch. According to a study last year, 40 percent of the food in this country goes uneaten, and billions of dollars' worth goes into landfills, not only stressing landfill capacity, but contributing to the greenhouse-causing gas methane. Act 148 includes a phased-in ban of all organic waste going to landfills by the year 2020. Most big food waste generators like hospitals and schools are already on board to meeting the first phase of the law which kicks in next year.
"So, I think for the first phase, that's probably the lowest hanging fruit," Hemenway said.
A working group is developing a waste hierarchy. That means in addition to encouraging waste prevention, anything edible should first go to food banks, then to producing animal feed or composting.
Food scraps picked up on Ted Coles' route go to one of three composters, among them the Vermont Compost Company in Montpelier. There, laying chickens get the first crack at the incoming goodies, which will eventually be turned into organic composting products.
"Eighty-five percent or more of Vermont's food is being made into a problem for down the road in landfill and we could be using it on our soils," said Karl Hammer of the Vermont Compost Company.
Hammer is a formidable figure in the state's compost scene. While he praises Act 148 for its vision, he says it faces a number of steep hurdles, foremost a lack of funding and coordination.
"We face huge structural problems," Hammer said. "We have about 15 percent of the capacity required to get the job done, so an enormous effort in both removing the material from the waste stream and in finding sites and strategies for utilizing it has to happen to achieve the mandate by 2020."
State solid waste officials say transportation is also an issue. While collection in communities like Barre or Brattleboro-- which is starting curbside composting this spring-- is manageable. A statewide approach would get expensive.
"In Central Vermont I don't think it's going to be an issue because we provide that; we haul compost. But in other areas of the state, I think the districts are working with the haulers to work that out," Hemenway said.
In some parts of the country-- including Central Vermont-- the buzzword these days is something called "zero waste." But that may be a tall order for many parts of the state that are still getting the hang of recycling.
"Americans aren't quite used to having a kitchen bucket for their organics or there Kleenex or their paper towels and things like that. And that's just going to take a long process, no different than the process we took to recycle back in the 80s and early 90s," said Tom Moreau of the Chittenden Solid Waste District.
Back in the compost yard, Hammer says he's willing to step up to solve the problems ahead.
"I'm thinking of running for the job of Vermont Compost Commissioner, an elective office that I believe doesn't yet exist, which certainly ought to narrow the field of competitors," he said.