For many Vermonters, Saturday mornings are sacred. They can be occasions to kick back with a third cup of coffee, linger over the newspaper, and enjoy the beginning of a day unburdened by remunerative labor. But when that peaceful interlude is over, it's high time to get to the dump.
Vermont generates 600,000 tons of solid waste per year - that's nearly 1 ton for every resident. We pay more than $100 million to remove it, in one way or another, from the lanes of our lives. And once it's removed, we give little thought to where it goes or how it gets there.
In Bridgewater, the post-consumer chain of custody begins with Art Lynds and ABLE Waste Management. Lynds, 37, started hauling trash 14 years ago for private clients in his hometown of Plymouth. Since then, his company has become the official Fast Trash contractor for Plymouth and Bridgewater, and has expanded into recycling, roll-off construction containers and rear-load dumpster rentals.
Pull into his movable operation at the Bridgewater Town Garage, which is tucked behind an old schoolhouse on the bank of the Ottauquechee River, and a phalanx of eager employees swarms your car to take the rubbish and recycling to their respective containers. Lynds' assistant, Bobbi-Jean, eyeballs your load and smiles as she gives you a seemingly arbitrary bill. In a matter of minutes, the detritus of your existence is in your rear-view mirror, the temporary ward of ABLE Waste.
Lynds took some time between hauls to explain what he does, but issued a modest disclaimer: "This is a very secretive industry," he warned, "but only because it's so complicated."
SEVEN DAYS: What is "Fast Trash"?
ART LYNDS: It's a state-mandated program. The State of Vermont wanted towns to provide some sort of recycling for town residents, so all the towns had to provide a drop-off location or have a transfer station. It's actually more of a recycling program than a trash program. In fact, we recycle as much tonnage as we take in trash; it's almost 50-50.
SD: Where does the trash go?
AL: From your car into our truck. That truck goes to a transfer station, which happens to be ours, where it sits until Monday morning, and then it goes to a facility and gets unloaded.
SD: Where's the facility?
AL: Bridgewater is in the Greater Upper Valley Waste District, but the trash actually goes to Rutland. Then it gets loaded into another truck and transferred to Albany, New York, to an incinerator, where it gets co-generated into electricity.
SD: What about the recycling - where does that go?
AL: All our programs are single-stream, which means that all your recyclables go in the same container. All your newspapers, your glass, your magazines, your tin cans - we take it all commingled. Then it goes to Chittenden County, to a processing plant owned by Casella. There, it gets separated mechanically and by hand - I think they process a couple hundred tons per day. Out of that, they get less than 3 percent waste product. The recycled product then gets shipped all over the country, and comes back in your car or your glass or your kids' toys.
SD: How do you make money hauling trash?
AL: The waste hauler pays for trash by the ton - the facility charges us so many dollars per ton of trash. We translate that into pennies per pound, which dictates how much we can charge for a bag of trash, so that it covers the cost of the trash, our labor, trucking, etc. It all has to do with trucking time. The waste world, really, is just a specialized trucking company.
SD: Can you explain the economics of recycling?
AL: Recycling is not free. A lot of recycling programs are funded with town tax dollars. But then there's metal, which is almost a zero-cost system, since we can sell it and reimburse our trucking costs. On a Fast Trash program, sometimes your trash cost is a bit higher, to subsidize some of the recycling cost. The trash part of "fast trash" is to lure the people there, but the goal is to reduce as much waste as possible.
SD: How has recycling changed since you got into the business?
AL: When we first started recycling, the state didn't even mandate that each town recycle. And it all had to be individually separated. It was very hard, and it took a long time, and you needed 10 different containers to keep it all in. So, the first real change was from sort-separated to dual-stream recycling. But then the whole world got recycle-conscious, and - bang! - we created a market.
For example, Chittenden County's program is a state-of-the-art system, because it has curbside single-stream pick-up, and they compact it to fit more on a load, which makes it more cost-effective. Hopefully, that catches on and the state figures out a way to get curbside single-stream programs off and running. Recycling now is also about education. If people don't know that they can help the environment by recycling, then they just won't do it. And we need to start with the kids and the schools, because it's actually a fun subject.
SD: What's the weirdest thing you've seen thrown away?
AL: We find more valuable things than weird things. Treadmills, shovels, gas grills. People think that when they're done with it, nobody else can use it. Same goes for clothes and toys. This is a wasteful generation. I'm sorry, but we are. We throw it away and we go buy new. And we shouldn't.
SD: We've come a long way since the days when people burned trash in barrels in their backyards. What still needs to be done to lessen the environmental impact of waste?
AL: We need to promote recycling, waste reduction and reuse. We need to educate. The state needs to step in and make it mandatory for every school to recycle. Lastly, we need funding mechanisms. It has to be cost-effective for the hauler. The waste hauler is doing a lot more than one would think to promote recycling.
SD: What about innovations? Any big breakthroughs in the technology of waste reduction?
AL: The transition from separate recyclables to single-stream - that's been amazing. On the construction end, they've started to make building materials out of all-recycled product. If we can make all our 2x4s out of waste product, then we'll be way ahead.
SD: What are the most commonly asked questions about trash disposal and recycling?
AL: For trash, it's "How much is it going to cost me?" Because no one wants to pay too much. For recycling, it's "Can I recycle this?" Now, thanks to the industry innovations, we can take numbers 3, 5 and 6 plastics. That's a very commonly asked question: "Why can't I recycle this?"
SD: What do you love about your job?
AL: The people. We have a very personalized company. We take a lot of time to deal with every individual person's situation, as if it were our own.
SD: What's the most challenging part of your job?
AL: The frustration of not being able to achieve the recycling and reduction goals that should be met. That has nothing to with legality, but what we should be doing.