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Windham Solid Waste to close materials recovery facility

Board of Supervisors votes to end Brattleboro recycling operation, pickup of recyclables from member towns

BRATTLEBORO—Windham County residents who toss their recyclables into any of the 100 roll-off bins maintained by the Windham Solid Waste Management District will soon have to do something else with all those beer bottles, milk jugs, and junk mail.

At the Dec. 8 District Board of Supervisors meeting, the body voted 13-10 to close the District’s Materials Recovery Facility at the end of Fiscal Year 2017 on June 30.

The final budget they passed reflects “no MRF, no trucking,” and includes a $94,000 line item for costs involved in closing the Materials Recovery Facility.

The District will need the Facility’s eight employees to stay on into July, and possibly a few weeks beyond, to sort and bundle the last of the recyclables and clean and shut down the machinery, but after that, their jobs may disappear.

After the vote, WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer told the Board of Supervisors he wasn’t looking forward to the staff meeting he scheduled the next morning. Although he told The Commons he is still working out the details and is unsure how many of those workers will lose their jobs, “this is a big deal to a lot of people.”

Employees in tears

During the Friday morning staff meeting at the District’s Old Ferry Road headquarters, “I had two female employees in tears, and the males, had they been allowed to express that, would have been in tears, too. They were really upset,” Spencer told The Commons.

After representatives from Brattleboro, Dover, Guilford, Jamaica, Readsboro, Stratton, Vernon, and Whitingham voted to close the facility that employs the eight workers, most of them participated in a round of applause for the hard work of those individuals.

But, one attendee noted afterwards, that display “felt hollow.”

Spencer noted many of the Facility staff live in Guilford. Their representative to the District, Cheryl Franklin, co-owner of Franklin & Sons Rubbish Removal, advocated for the Facility’s closing at the town’s Selectboard meetings.

The Selectboard agreed, directing her to vote “no MRF."

At the Board of Supervisors meeting, some representatives asked Spencer what will happen to the building housing the Materials Recovery Facility. He said it could “be repurposed to handle organic waste,” such as compostable materials.

There are also plans in the works for the Rich Earth Institute, a Brattleboro nonprofit which collects and processes urine for agricultural fertilizer, to lease a portion of the facility.

The building “is a significant asset,” Spencer said, noting, “there’s revenue or lease potential.”

’Brattleboro got its way’

A few District officials pointed out that “Brattleboro got its way.”

Although “no MRF” passed by three votes, had each town been allowed to cast only one vote, the motion would have failed, 9-8. But, according to the District charter, towns get one vote per 3,000 residents, giving Brattleboro, with a population just over 12,000, five votes. The town also gets a sixth vote for hosting the capped landfill and the Materials Recovery Facility on Old Ferry Road.

Thus, Brattleboro’s vote counted more than those of Brookline, Dummerston, Halifax, Putney, Townshend, Wardsboro, Westminster, and Wilmington — the towns that voted to keep the MRF open.

According to Board of Supervisors Vice-Chair Jan Ameen, this leaves most of those towns in a tough spot.

Ameen, who also serves as Westminster’s representative to the District, said her town’s residents may not see much of a change because they have municipal curbside pickup.

But Ameen noted that she sometimes drops her recyclables off in Putney’s roll-off bins, located behind the Fire Station. After June 30, when every town has to fend for itself, “do you think Putney will want me throwing my recyclables in their bins?"

Ameen explained if towns without municipal curbside pickup then contract with a private hauler to install their own roll-off bins, those containers likely won’t be open 24/7 to anyone. She said they may resemble transfer stations, which are staffed and gated and have limited hours.

Forgoing shared system

With the closing of the Facility, county residents will no longer have the opportunity to belong to a district-wide system, which, for example, allows Guilford residents to dispose of their recyclables in the Fairground Road or Vernon roll-off containers.

“We have to look out for our towns,” said Readsboro’s representative, Gig Zboray.

“It’s just changing times,” said Tim Franklin, Vernon’s representative, who also co-owns Franklin & Sons Rubbish Removal, a private hauler.

“Every town has to look at what’s best for its town, individually,” said Brattleboro’s representative to the District, John Allen, who also serves on the town’s Selectboard.

Allen, who until Tuesday night’s Brattleboro Selectboard meeting was the alternate representative to the District, was appointed as representative after the Selectboard ousted David Schoales on Dec. 6. The Selectboard was unhappy with Schoales’ voting against its wishes at the Nov. 10 District Board of Supervisors meeting.

But there was some question whether Allen was authorized to represent Brattleboro at the District meeting. According to the District’s charter, a town must announce a change in a voting representative in writing and submit it to the district clerk.

Spencer confirmed Brattleboro officials never did that. Because Schoales was still technically the voting member, Allen could vote only if Schoales was unable to attend. Schoales attended the meeting, but chose not to vote, leaving that to Allen.

Cost versus value

During its Dec. 6 regular meeting, the Brattleboro Selectboard also voted to begin sending its recyclables to Casella, the privately owned Rutland-based Materials Recovery Facility.

Some of the benefits touted by town officials include the ability to recycle numbers 3-7 plastics, and to consolidate all recyclables into a “single-stream” system. This means Brattleboro residents living in housing with fewer than five units can soon toss all of their recyclables in one bin, including the 3-7 plastics that were discontinued from the recycling system a few years ago.

Brattleboro residents in buildings with more than five units aren’t included in the town’s curbside pickup system.

Ameen expects Brattleboro landlords owning larger buildings “are going to hate it” when the roll-offs disappear, because residents using those bins will soon place all of their recyclables into the household trash or recycling bins. The landlords will have to pay the private haulers for that extra weight — which might lead to rent increases for tenants.

The morning after the vote, not even 12 hours later, Spencer reported, “We’ve already gotten a number of calls from people in Brattleboro upset” about the decision, wondering what they will do with their recyclables once the roll-off bins disappear.

Allen expressed his conviction that solid waste is a commodity that could change in value, and that there is a lot of competition for it, suggesting that individual towns could have some leverage over the companies that haul it away.

But his assertions were not shared by others at the table that night, including Johanna Gardner, Newfane’s representative to the District.

Loss of control?

With towns relying on private haulers — which, unlike the nonprofit District, run on a profit-based business model — “we are going to be under someone else’s thumb,” Gardner, said. “I’m worried we’re going to regret [this decision] in five years."

Ameen, who is employed as executive director of the Franklin County [Massachusetts] Solid Waste Management District, said it might not take that long.

She referenced President-elect Donald J. Trump’s talk of disrupting trade with China — one of the U.S’s biggest recipients of recycled materials, especially from the “single-stream” system — and cautioned against any town’s putting too much faith in single-stream.

“If China embargoes” materials coming from the U.S., “are we cutting off our nose to spite our face? We’re saving $10,000 now, but we’ll regret it later,” Ameen said. And if the private haulers begin losing money handing recyclables, will they “come back to towns and raise their rates?”

“There’s been a push for years” by some towns to work with private haulers and discontinue the MRF, Ameen said, adding that now town officials “are going to see what it’s like to play with the big boys."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #387 (Wednesday, December 14, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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