As landfill space diminishes, New Hampshire faces a trash disposal crossroads
The Groveton firm, perhaps the oldest family-owned hauling firm in New England, has about eight trucks and 18 employees, but “we can’t grow any more,” said owner Barry Normandeau. “We have lots of towns that want to give us their stuff, but very shortly we won’t have a place to dispose any more of it.”
He added: “That’s why you see people running around like their hair is on fire.”
Some of those people — who are concerned about the solid waste disposal picture in New Hampshire — are in favor of a trash tax, a $1.50-per-ton surcharge disposal fee. It’s a measure Normandeau opposes so much that he drove down to Concord on Feb. 4 to testify against it at the State House.
But while he may disagree with the solution, he agrees that there’s a problem. Recyclables are piling up. Out-of-state trash is rumbling in. And the few facilities that take trash are running out of space.
That’s why New Hampshire, already beset with among the highest energy and healthcare costs in the nation, also has some of the highest disposal costs in the nation.
In New Hampshire, the average tipping fee was $74.34 per ton in 2018, which is actually down from the $80-per-ton it was the previous year, but it was still the seventh-highest rate in the continental U.S., according to the latest annual survey by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation.
New Hampshire haulers can’t just take trash to nearby states because four of the other six states with the highest tipping fees are also in the region, led by Rhode Island, with $110 in 2018. Massachusetts (which wasn’t included in the most recent survey but previously led the region with a $95-per-ton fee in 2017) has since closed two landfills. In fact, Massachusetts sends a lot more municipal solid waste to New Hampshire — nearly 400,000 tons in 2017 — than we send down there (220,000 tons), according to the Bay State’s last solid waste update.
Indeed, nearly half of the municipal solid waste headed toward New Hampshire landfills is coming from out of state. Some 49% of municipal solid waste (about 1.16 million tons) was from out of state in 2018, up from 47% the year before.
But before you get upset about the Granite State being New England’s regional dump, you should note that recyclables go the other way, because the state doesn’t have a single state recycling facility. And construction and demolition debris also goes out of state because of state restrictions.
Average tipping fees don’t tell the whole story. They include cheaper municipal landfills that won’t take trash from other towns. There are only four facilities that take all comers. The largest, Waste Management’s Turnkey Landfill in Rochester, accepted 1.5 million tons in 2018, with 919,000 tons (about 62%) from out of state.
“We don’t want all this waste. We are running out of capacity,” said Steve Poggi, Waste Management’s area director of waste operations.
Turnkey charges $80 per ton at the gate (less for long-term contracts), “but still they come, saying they’ll take the higher price,” said Poggi.
Turnkey has more capacity than most. It was going to run out of space in April 2025, but it successfully obtained a permit to increase by 55 acres, extending its life to 2035.
The second-largest landfill, Casella Waste Systems’ North Country Environmental Services facility in Bethlehem, is only expected to last until April of next year. The landfill accepted 352,000 tons in 2018 (about a third from out of state) with a gate tipping fee of $102 a ton.
Casella is seeking to expand the landfill another 5.8 acres to extend its life a few more years (permit pending), but it has run into fierce local opposition, as it has when it proposed a much larger site in nearby Dalton, a town without zoning laws.
That town passed an emergency ordinance to set up zoning to keep the landfill out.
All this doesn’t surprise John Gay, a compliance manager at Casella.
“It’s the idea that you are accepting everybody’s discarded materials that smells and seems disgusting and people don’t like that in their backyard. We get that. But we have to deal with the trash,” he said.
Another landfill up north also accepts outside waste, the Mount Carberry Secure Landfill, run by the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District, whose membership includes Berlin and nine other towns. It is expected to last — under its current permit — until 2025 but AVRRDD Executive Director Sharon E. Gauthier seems confident that it will be able to expand without too much difficulty. Its permit limits it to accepting 305,500 cubic yards a year, which translated into 235,000 tons in 2018.
Another facility that accepts trash is Wheelabrator Concord, a waste-to-energy incinerator in Penacook, but it accepted less than 200,000 tons in 2018.
Recycling was supposed to extend a landfill’s life. That’s why the state set the goal back in 1990 to divert 40% of its waste by 2000.
But it couldn’t figure out if it met that goal, because it couldn’t measure such things as home composting or manufacturers changing their production process, or how much waste was shipped in and out of the state, and problems of double-counting waste at transfer stations and the final destination.
What can be measured is how much is actually disposed of in facilities located in New Hampshire, and that number in absolute terms has gone up some 21% since 2015, to 2.4 million tons in 2018. Per capita, that means an increase from 0.79 ton to 0.91 ton, according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ annual solid waste report.
If the increase in solid waste continues and landfill capacity diminishes, then demand will exceed supply by 100,000 tons by 2025, and by more than a million tons in 2035.
This is what Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of Northeast Resource Recovery Association, calls an “evolving solid waste crisis.”
Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London, the deputy speaker of the New Hampshire House, would not use the word crisis but does say policymakers have “taken our eye off the ball” when it came to solid waste and we need to “kick up the game a notch” when it comes to recycling.
For one, she notes, the state hasn’t updated its solid waste plan since 2003.
Recycling has floundered since then, especially in the last few years.
In order to increase recycling rates, most larger municipalities, which handle the vast majority of the state’s waste, switched to single-stream recycling, commingling everything in one large bin, and then paying a materials recovery facility, or MRF, to separate it. They also had to pay to haul the recyclables out of state, since New Hampshire doesn’t have its own MRF.
But it was still an economical practice until the world’s biggest customer for recyclables, China, stopped taking contaminated waste. The nation drew its National Sword Policy, cutting off any waste with a 0.5% contamination — an almost impossible standard to meet. That’s especially true with pay-as-you-throw collection systems, which give economic and environmental incentives to “wish-cycle”: throwing something borderline into that bin in the vague hope that someone can make use of it.
This is a particularly big deal with paper, which makes up half of the recycled waste stream. Mixed paper used to bring in $85 a ton. Now it costs $45 to $100 (with transportation costs) to dispose of. Sorted office paper, on the other hand, still gets as much as $85 a ton, China or no. As a result, some towns simply started to landfill some recyclables or abandon recycling altogether.
Ebel headed up a study committee to see what could be done, and the report was released in November.
The Feb. 4 hearings that Normandeau attended involved bills that emerged from the report. The first, Senate Bill 591, would change the state’s vague diversion goal to a more measurable 25% disposal reduction in weight by 2030 and 45% by 2050, based on 2018 disposal rates.
“It’s a fairly ambitious goal, and it would require a concerted effort,” said Michael Nork, a solid waste analyst with NHDES.
“It does pose a challenge,” added Gay, of Casella, especially when New Hampshire towns are “abandoning recycling in alarming rates.”
“These goals are doable,” said Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, in introducing the bill. “The question is how we are going to do it.”
Banning out-of-state waste is one thing New Hampshire can’t do. That would be unconstitutional under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
So if the state increases its recycling rate, “the irony is that might only create the capacity for more and more waste coming out of state,” said Tom Irwin, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire.
That’s where Watters’ next bill, SB 629, comes in.
It would charge a $1.50-per-ton surcharge on all waste, and then rebate the money, but only to New Hampshire municipalities, for their solid waste programs. The money collected from out-of-state disposal — roughly $1.5 million annually — won’t be rebated.
Under the bill, that money would go to the state’s solid waste program for such things as upgrading the solid waste plan, providing technical assistance to municipalities and matching grants to both municipalities and “private entities” to improve their recycling programs.
Such grants are desperately needed for towns that are “like islands dealing with global markets,” said Ebel.
The NRRA has a waiting list of towns asking for help on recycling solid waste. In other states, the state helps them out, said Bissonnette, but in New Hampshire, “there is only so much we can do with our current capacity. We have to turn some towns away.”
Some 38 states have a similar surcharge or trash tax. In Vermont, it has been $6 a ton for 30 years on waste generated in-state, whether it is being disposed of in-state or shipped out. (It also won’t let an outside municipality dump trash in the state unless it has a solid waste plan. No town has ever applied.)
Massachusetts has an annual tax on disposal. Maine has a surcharge on various wastes, as well as a $2-ton add-on for municipal solid waste, but municipalities with long-term contracts are exempted from it, though there is a bill filed this year that would end that exemption.
“We are being left in the dust on this,” says Michael Wimsatt, director of NHDES’s Waste Management Division.
Waste Management, the company, opposes the bill on principle, as does the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.
“We are not advocating any new taxes or anything that would cost our customers,” explains Poggi. But if the state is going to go ahead with it, make it clear that New Hampshire businesses, who would have to pay the tax, will get the benefits.
Poggi wasn’t suggesting that they get a rebate — that would be too much like a “shell game” in the words of Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. Representative Ebel worries that a straight rebate might even be unconstitutional as an obvious end run around the commerce clause.
What Poggi is asking for is that NHDES give grants to businesses to improve diversion. One possibility is to help fund MRFs in New Hampshire, which would cut down recyclables hauling costs. Waste Management has already been working on such a project at the Turnkey site. Casella might also be interested, though it hasn’t had one planned, said Gay.
Another possibility would be grants to help haulers with their recycling efforts or help businesses reduce their solid waste output. Watters says he’s open to such an amendment.
There are other initiatives suggested by the solid waste study.
One was to try to do something aimed at diverting plastic, which makes up 9% of the waste stream by weight and more in volume. Plastic bags are a particular problem, since they can gum up a MRF sorter. Attempts to ban such bags failed last year, but Ebel has introduced House Bill 1701, requiring retail stores larger than 7,000 square feet to put out bins to collect them. The New Hampshire Retail Association and the NH Grocers Association both oppose the bill.
Compostable materials, which make up 22% of the waste stream, are another big target. One of the holdups there are regulations for handling organic compost that were supposed to be issued in 2015. Ebel’s bill, HB 1704 would require NHDES to promulgate those rules.
In addition to the legislation, the hope is that businesses develop the technology and infrastructure to fill the gap left by China and provide a better market for recyclables. There is some evidence that it is beginning to happen.
But the fear is — given the decreasing availability of landfill options in New Hampshire — that “we are going to end up with higher disposal charges if we don’t get a grip on things,” Ebel said.
In that case, recycling, which may not be economically feasible right now, will soon become an economic necessity.
Bob Sanders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.