Effective this week, plastic bags (including newspaper bags), films, and bubble wrap are no longer accepted at Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District (NEKWMD) facilities.
“The board has been struggling with this, I have been struggling with this, for months,” said Paul Tomasi, Executive Director of NEKWMD, on Wednesday.
The district serves 49 member towns in Orleans, Caledonia, Washington, Essex and Orange counties.
Tomasi said that NEKWMD can no longer find anyone to accept the material, despite a multitude of efforts over the past couple of years.
NEKWMD’s primary outlet for plastic films and bags (those labeled with a two, four or five) used to be Prima America Corporation in Groveton, N.H., but the corporation has not accepted any of the material since December 2019 nor given a reason or any indication when they might resume.
According to an information sheet posted on the district’s website, NEKWMD finally found a potential outlet in Ontario and shipped a load of plastic film bales there in June at a cost of $800.
However, Tomasi said the feedback NEKWMD received was that there were too many contaminants — things that don’t belong, including other types of plastic — in the bales.
“We’ve been trying to find other facilities willing to accept it, but, based on that feedback, we’re going to have a hard time,” he said. “It’s been really frustrating.”
While the state of Vermont does not require waste districts to accept plastic films or bags, NEKWMD had been for the past 10 years.
“As a waste district we feel like we have a responsibility to look for as many materials we can get out of the waste stream as possible,” said Tomasi. “[Plastic bags and films] have always been one of those items that we were fortunate enough to find somebody who would accept.”
On July 12, the NEKWMD Board of Supervisors voted to discontinue accepting plastic bags and films.
“We hate having to drop something, because I think it gives people who aren’t real crazy about recycling in the first place a reason to say ‘oh, look, they landfill everything,’” said Tomasi. “And that’s not the case; it’s expensive to landfill material. This decision wasn’t entered into lightly, and I hope people understand that.”
The district still currently has 40 to 60 tons of the material stored at its facility in Lyndonville. Tomasi is pursuing alternate options but expects that NEKWMD may have to send it to a landfill, especially due to its degraded quality after sitting around outside for so long.
Tomasi points out that while Vermont did ban single-use plastic bags at stores and restaurants last year, they have not been banned for newspapers and a number of other products.
“My message to folks is: think about how you’re going to get rid of something before you buy it,” he said. “Because once you’re ready to get rid of it, it’s kind of too late if there aren’t any options.”
“I’m not trying to put the responsibility on consumers entirely; the industry really needs to step up and create programs to recover their own material,” Tomasi added. “They’ve been able to just push those costs on the consumers for years.”
According to the information sheet, films represent less than 1.5% of materials processed by the NEKWMD annually.
While some national grocery store chains, including Shaw’s and Price Chopper, do have recycling locations for plastic films and bags in some of their retail locations, NEKWMD has been unable to confirm if those are available at Price Chopper in St. Johnsbury or Shaw’s in Derby.
Tomasi added that residents should be sure to follow rules regarding separating recycled materials and cleaning them before disposal, mentioning a recent incident where a lithium battery was contained in a cardboard box sent to recycle at NEKWMD started to smolder. Thankfully, it did not catch fire, but Tomasi notes that the battery would have been accepted if it had just been put in the battery bin.
According to Tomasi, when residents separate and clean their material, it allows the NEKWMD to process more material quickly, cleanly, and, in some cases, get more money for it on the open market.