A long-awaited update to New Hampshire’s trash plan is out. What’s next for solid waste?
A long-overdue update to New Hampshire’s solid waste management plan has been released by the Department of Environmental Services. It revises a plan that was nearly two decades old.
The plan outlines how the state will reduce waste that goes into landfills and incinerators 25% by 2030 and 45% by 2050 – goals that are set in state law.
It’s focused on reducing the quantity of trash generated, reducing the toxicity of the trash, maximizing waste diversion tactics like recycling and composting, developing local markets for those industries, and ensuring New Hampshire has enough room for its own trash.
Many of the updated goals echo the state’s most recent solid waste plan, published in 2003. But for the first time, the plan includes sections on climate change and environmental justice.
Rep. Karen Ebel, the chair of the Solid Waste Working Group, which helped state regulators develop the plan, said the plan was a roadmap to make progress on solid waste in New Hampshire.
“It really calls out the fact that we've done a poor job in fulfilling the mission of the state to do far less landfilling and a lot more reuse and recycling,” she said.
Granite Staters are paying more attention to waste issues, Ebel noted, saying the state should move forward by supporting towns and businesses in implementing the plan. But it’s difficult to do that without a sustainable source of money. The plan dedicates a whole section to securing that funding.
“We can't just rely on federal grants if we're going to be doing better with this,” she said. “We’re going to have to tighten our belts a little bit.”
Ahead of the plan’s release, some advocates said a draft version was missing action steps and timelines for achieving its own goals.
“A number of comments called for more specificity in the plan, but in many cases, specificity will only be possible after completing other actions included in the plan,” commissioner Robert Scott wrote in the final plan, noting that the department would use short-term implementation plans to prioritize and measure their progress.
Reagan Bissonnette, the executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association and also a member of the Solid Waste Working Group, was one of the people pushing for more specificity in the plan. Now, she’s looking at the next steps.
At the top of her list is a waste characterization and generation study, which would lay out the types of waste being generated and disposed of in New Hampshire to help the state prioritize reducing and diverting trash from landfills.
She’s also focused on building infrastructure in the state to manage more recycling and composting. New Hampshire has no materials recovery facilities where all single-stream recycling (think: blue boxes where aluminum cans, glass bottles, and cardboard all get mixed together) can go to be processed. Currently, all of that recycling goes to other states.
“Ideally, we would have more opportunities to keep materials in the state of New Hampshire for processing, which is going to reduce costs for communities and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Working on Waste, a group that advocates for alternatives to landfills and incinerators, also submitted comments on the plan when it was in draft form, encouraging state regulators to adopt a zero-waste hierarchy, instead of the 25% reduction goal.
John Tuthill, a volunteer with Working on Waste, says the plan is a beginning. But the state has long been locked into a focus on disposing trash, he says, rather than reducing it.
“Until we break free from that, I think a lot of what's in this plan is aspirational, and I think there's a lot of work ahead, particularly on the side of the general court and also in the executive branch, he said.
Tuthill says the state’s privatization of trash services – to companies like Casella and Waste Management – makes it hard to focus on waste reduction. One way to move forward, Tuthill said, would be to treat waste management as a regulated utility, like electricity or gas.
Public comments also encouraged regulators to address trash coming in from other states. According to the plan, nearly 2 million tons of trash went into landfills and incinerators in New Hampshire in 2020, with almost half of that coming in from out of state. Out-of-state trash is overwhelmingly put into commercial landfills, the plan says.
State regulators note the U.S. Constitution has a clause that prevents the state from telling commercial landfills to stop accepting out-of-state waste, under common interpretation.
In order to address that issue, Rep. Karen Ebel says it’ll take a collective effort, requiring everyone to be more thoughtful about their trash.
“If we don’t do better,” she said, “It's going to affect our landfill situation, and we're going to continue to be the place that it's the easiest to landfill and the cheapest in the region. And I, for one, would like to not be the place where other states look to dump their trash.”