Brattleboro must decide on contract for solid waste, with few options

Casella is the only hauler to offer service so far, and would require adopting an automated collection model, ending pay-as-you-throw

BRATTLEBORO-As the town approaches the end of its current contract for solid waste collection, the only company interested in handling town trash in future has a caveat about how that will ultimately work: automation.

Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, who met with Selectboard members April 16 to lay out the plan for collection after the current contract ends June 30, called the mechanization qualifier "either a deal-maker or a deal-breaker, depending on how you look at it."

In February, the board requested that town staff members proceed with the request for qualifications process to identify who might be the town's next solid waste hauler.

Moreland said letters of interest from qualified firms were soilicited via newspaper ads as well as by direct contact to 10 firms in and outside Vermont, including Casella, the company that last year acquired the town's former hauler, Triple T Trucking.

Only Casella submitted a letter of interest, and a meeting was held April 8 with Town Manager John Potter, Moreland, and a Casella representative.

Substantive changes ahead

During the meeting, Moreland said all parties agreed that "substantive program changes will require adequate time and plenty of public education."

That's because Casella is interested in a new deal with the town on the condition that it incorporate a transition to automated, or mechanized, collection, a process wherein special carts are left curbside and a truck can reach out by mechanical means to pick up the container and drop its contents into the back of the truck without requiring the driver - the one employee - to leave the cab.

(1)Moreland noted the advantages of an automated collection system include the need for fewer employees, and that they are less likely to be injured on the job. He said the solid waste industry, like many others, is struggling to keep jobs filled, and that a person on the ground lifting cans and bags of trash is at risk due to physical strain as well as traffic.

Town staff members have identified and are evaluating two options for a future deal. These include a standard contract, as the town had with Triple T for many years, and a franchise arrangement.

In a franchise deal, the town would negotiate options but the hauler would be the entity dealing directly with residents.

Moreland also noted that for years, Brattleboro has been successful in diverting waste away from the landfill by promoting recycling and organics collection for composting. He said if the town wants to continue to promote those services, that could be part of a franchise arrangement with the hauler.

There are a lot of issues to explore, including collection frequency.

Currently, recycling and organics are collected weekly and trash is collected every other week.

The current Pay As You Throw system involves pre-purchasing collection bags locally, but Moreland pointed out that this could be accomplished in other ways, depending on the type of agreement reached.

For instance, a franchise could include negotiating multiple cart sizes, depending on each household's needs. If it is a standard contract, the town could provide base carts and if a household needs more, the owner could contract directly with Casella.

"Either option would enable us to step away from the bag program, which may or not be desirable," Moreland said, adding that a plan to dispose of leftover trash bags would be formulated.

"We'll have to come up with a plan because there are going to be some out there, and they will lose value," he said.

Advisory groups will gauge public opinion

Most important now, Moreland said, is to gauge public interest in the two contract options: traditional or franchise.

The town manager's office plans to mount an online survey for input and, "because we think this is something that really would benefit from a slightly deeper dive," to establish four advisory groups: one of Representative Town Meeting members, one of renters, one of West Brattleboro residents, and one of folks who live downtown.

There will be two meetings, one before pricing is obtained and one after. Those who serve on the focus groups will be paid $25 per meeting. Moreland said the process will extend through May and then he will return to the Selectboard with the information gathered.

Board member Franz Reichsman questioned the timeline and size of focus groups, and asked whether a transition to automation - if that option is selected - would need to be in place July 1.

"How are we going to implement this in a really good way?" he asked.

Moreland responded that any automation would not start immediately, but during the life of the contract, as the town would agree to make the transition with "as much public education as possible."

He said he has seen "great resiliency" from the public in switching collection practices with plenty of notice and "a certain amount of aggressive public education."

Maintaining sustainability

The town has no legal obligation to provide an organized recycling and composting program such as the one that currently exists, Moreland said, and many towns offer no solid waste collection service, including Keene, New Hampshire, and Montpelier.

"Brattleboro has what the folks at the Agency of Natural Resources consider to be a 'Cadillac' program, and they love our 'Cadillac' program, and I believe they hope we love it too, and we'll be looking to sustain it in the year to come," he said.

Board Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin asked staff members to provide statistics about how much recycling and composting is now being removed from the trash flow, and Moreland indicated that they would.

"I think it's important for the town to know the sustainability elements that are inherent in our current system so that we, hopefully, endeavor to maintain that," McLoughlin said.

Moreland noted that when Brattleboro transitioned to the pay-as-you-throw model in 2016, "overnight, trash volumes were cut in half and organics collection doubled."

"And I remember people being very trepidatious about that program but it seems to be working very well, and certainly as intended," added McLoughlin.

Moreland agreed, and added that for those with diapers and medical waste, the current program doesn't work as well, but that "presumably in this process we might identify measures that would help those households."

"It can't be tailor-made to everybody, but we can do our best," Moreland said.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates