Grace Oedel: Universal Recycling Law’s goals were not plastic pollution and profits 

This commentary is by Grace Oedel of Burlington, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

It was Vermonters’ ethic of care for both land and people that motivated our policymakers to establish a Universal Recycling Law (URL/Act 148). 

This wise move, requiring composting, rightly identified food waste as an essential part of how we care for our place: sequestering carbon, restoring nutrients, and adding life to our soils. Healthy, compost-rich soil increases biodiversity and filters water. 

Composting additionally supports Vermont’s goals around food resiliency by enabling us to grow more of the food we need with fewer energy- intensive and supply chain-reliant inputs like fertilizer required from “away.” 

All these goals remain urgently needed for a thriving future. In creating the Universal Recycling Law, Vermont demonstrated an understanding that ecosystem health (including human health) is literally rooted in our soil. 

And yet, despite the original good intention of the Universal Recycling Law, the global pattern of corporate takeover across every sector, steamrolling forward with its myopic profit obsession and abject disregard for holistic community and ecosystem health, has found its way to Vermont. 

Originally, food waste and plastics were required to be separated before composting, which makes logical sense if you consider what you’d put into your backyard pile. But since 2019, the Agency of Natural Resources has decided to reinterpret the section of the law on “source separation requirement” differently, essentially negating its original intent and allowing plastic trash to be crushed right in with the food mix. 

The source separation requirement was designed to ensure organic material be completely separated from nonorganic material before composting. The decision not to require source separation made it possible for large companies interested in getting into the new market to take that step. 

This change in interpretation of the law interestingly coincided with Agri-Cycle, a large food waste corporation, winning Hannaford’s contract for disposing of food waste.

In these multinational corporate-owned, profit- driven depacker “composting” operations, large machines crush plastic food wrapping together with food scraps. Think here of a shrink-wrapped cucumber that a grocery store discarded when it passed the sell-by date. As you might imagine, this smashing process results in tiny microplastics (which we increasingly know pollute the soil and water, as well as our bodies) that are then part of the slurry that goes into the bio-digester,  the “compost” (for example, greenwashed toxic dirt) that is then applied on agricultural lands. 

One of the major companies setting up shop to do this work is Vanguard Renewables, which has been expanding its facilities and operations nationally at an unprecedented pace — including in Middlebury, Vermont. Vanguard is now owned by Black Rock, the single largest investor in the global fossil energy supply (coal, natural gas, and oil). Black Rock itself holds the title of being one of the three biggest investors in plastics globally, with a focus on single-use plastics manufacturing. 

Making money on plastics both at the origin and at the “end” (if only) of the plastics’ life cycle is a sweet spot for the company’s profit. All the better for corporate profit if plastic can be crushed back into soil and the persistent plastic problem can be hidden — at least for now.

But we know that the plastics remain in the soil. We need look only to our close neighbors in Maine to see but one acute example of how microplastics persisting in the soil are quietly polluting our land and bodies. The issue of PFAS is the tip of the iceberg of plastics pollution.   

Compare this with what was originally intended to process Vermont’s waste: a Vermont-scale, human-centered composting operation in which plastic wrappers are sorted out before landing in the composting pile so that anything in that pile can be part of the breakdown process. 

This process cares holistically for the soil, understands food waste as an important resource to be well-stewarded, and keeps organic material clean. The end product is alive, nutritious and nontoxic. Composting is, and must remain, a benefit to our communities, our land and our health. 

In the additionally innovative practice of compost foraging, farmers raise their poultry on compost piles and are able to substitute most of their diet with nourishment from the ecology at the compost pile and save significant feed cost while raising their layers or meat birds. The birds then inoculate the pile with their manure; pelleted chicken manure is a valuable fertilizer on vegetable farms. 

In that way, composting food residuals also support more holistic poultry management systems and the ethical production of poultry manure-based fertilizers. Vermont lawmakers support this innovative practice and allow farmers who engage in poultry management while composting food scraps to make a business out of selling all of their compost (Act 41, 2021). 

We can stand together as a community and insist on our shared values: care for our land, and for our communities — to push back and ask that our original ethical intention that motivated the URL be restored. 

Vermonters are stewards. We value ecosystem health. We value soil. We value community-scale businesses that support communities, not mega-corporate profits that enrich the few. 

You can also help to maintain a shared culture around stewardship by tending your own food scraps well, removing wrappers and stickers (even if they say they are compostable, as long as it’s not absolutely clear that they can compost at the home scale), and also by considering whether you need to purchase a shrink-wrapped zucchini in the first place. 

I often remind my children when they are going to “throw something away” that there truly is no “away” — there is only what we are willing to keep close and what we ignore by sending farther. 
This is the only home we have. Raise your voice by writing or calling your legislator or the House and Senate Natural Resources & Agriculture committees to raise the fundamental message: “Protect our soil and stand by the source separation requirement. Depackaging technology uproots that requirement of the URL and is currently illegal. Your Name, Town.”  You can learn more at protectoursoil.org.

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