Pay As You Throw wasn't so bad, now was it? All you have to do is spend a few extra hours (and/or dollars) a week on your trash and voila! It's trash day and out to the curb it goes, in multiple assorted bins, to be sure, but at least it's gone and that's what matters. End of story, right?
Oh, how we wish. Unfortunately, now that we're all composting, recycling, and reducing our landfill waste to little piles of plastic and metal oddments, we have a new problem. Curbside recycling is not profitable. It doesn't even pay for itself. In many places, including Brattleboro, the recycling companies have to be propped up financially by the municipalities, costing taxpayers money (again).
What's a tax-averse taxpayer to do to get out of this increasingly expensive waste stream? That's a very good question. Costs will continue to rise unless we stop generating waste, which in the current world, is hard to do. For starters, manufacturers and retailers have to package goods in something, usually cardboard or plastic. Even the co-op supplies plastic baggies for their bulk food products. All these packages–recyclable and non--end up as solid waste whether we like it or not.
So what happened to the promise of recycling? A lot of things, in fact. The falling price of oil made a big dent in the price for raw plastics as virgin plastic got more affordable --suddenly all those soda and water bottles got more expensive to dispose of. Meanwhile, no one seems to want paper or glass, and the price for aluminum derived from cans has been hurt by whatever it is that caused Americans to suddenly need fewer cheap Chinese goods.
Solid waste is tough. We don't want it around, and now the people who were taking it from us don't want it either, or at least not at the same prices as before. What will we do?
Frankly, I think we'll adjust, as we always do; in this case, through a combination of cost-saving legislation (making stores take back their packaging and/or dead products), capitalism (entrepreneurs figuring out how to make real money off of recycled goods), and changes to industry practice (decreasing packaging, for example, which is already happening). There might also be changes in habits.
Back when I was a kid, I spent a lot of summers in Fall River, “the town that time forgot,” and they had a requirement that people “separate their trash.” This would have been the 1960s. My grandmother had a buried compost bucket that went out to the curb once a week, as well as a single rubbish bin for trash. In addition, my grandfather burned a lot of stuff – leaves for sure, but also paper and sometimes other things too. Not saying this is good, but it was pretty common then.
As for new goods coming in, the family used refillable milk bottles from the milkman as well as refilled soda and beer bottles (all of which were returned each time we bought more). Some dry goods like chips and pretzels were purchased in bulk and stored in large, refillable bins. Almost everything that was edible came wrapped in paper (meat, cheese, Higson's fish and chips, etc.) or stowed in paper boxes tied with string (donuts, cupcakes, French meat pies).
Further reducing their “waste stream,” my grandparents saved anything of marginal value. My brother and I inherited large tins of buttons and bottle after bottle of recycled hardware from my grandmother and grandfather respectively. They didn't have much, and a lot of what they had they'd made themselves or were saving to make something else from later. It was truly a different world.
I was from the city by then, and thought these practices quaint. Now I wonder if we might some day end up going back to them. The reusable plastic container on my drainboard, filled with compostable vegetable matter, reminds me of the one my grandmother had by her sink. I too have bottles and jars of things I'm saving, just in case. I would be more than happy to go back to buying local brew or local soda out of reusable bottles (although I don't see that one coming any time soon). We're actively looking at store packaging now in a way we hadn't before. Can we buy all our meat at the meat counter (and not out of the case where they put it in plastic) without going broke? These questions remain to be answered.
The problems that afflict bigger recycling operations aren't as much in evidence here in Brattleboro because we already have curbside composting and because we mostly sort our recycling bins. Only plastic and glass are co-mingled. In bigger places, single stream has caused huge problems as sorting becomes an expensive nightmare and Chinese trash buyers get pickier about what they'll take. But the problem of low prices for recyclables is affecting everyone, and Windham Solid Waste Management (our solid waste company) has complained in the past about low prices, one reason Brattleboro's share of paying for them has gone up in recent years. Unless the recycling market turns around, it's likely that our costs to support the program will continue to rise. In fact, the Windham Solid Waste Management District (our recycling partners) all but say it in Brattleboro's 2014 annual report:
"Due to a stagnant world economy, both the volume and value of the recyclable materials collected has decreased over the past two years, necessitating a 9 percent increase in the assessments to the member towns for FY 2015. " They go on to say that "the increase was contained" to just 5.6 per-cent in FY16, "despite additional educational program requirements of Act 148." Does that sound like they might be hinting at a 5% or higher increase annually? Likely so if current conditions hold.
There is no question that reducing our trash is a good thing. The less junk in landfills, the better. But where there's waste, there's cost, and barring some miracle plan to permaculture our way out of this, we're going to be paying for waste disposal one way or another. So by all means, feel virtuous about your composting and recycling (I do!) but don't be surprised if the question of solid waste and its transmutation comes up again...