Waste, by its very definition, presents a challenge to the optimist. Thankfully, we Vermonters have never been patient toward or accepting of what is wasteful.
Rather, it is efficient, economical use of our resources that gives focus to many of our environmental efforts and provides us with a sense of hope. As Vermonters, we’ve made considerable progress in responsibly managing, reducing, and preventing waste.

Not all wastes are created equal; there are wastes that can readily and easily be returned to nature and those that must be isolated from nature for decades or centuries. The same can be said for waste management strategies. In the past, waste management relied primarily on disposal and treatment of wastes with little attention to what has commonly been referred to as the three Rs: Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling. Although we still send large quantities of waste for disposal, there is much greater awareness of and practice of the three Rs. (See definitions.)

The rise in reuse

While many Vermonters continue to recycle waste that would otherwise go to landfills for disposal, many are also discovering the benefits of reuse. Garage and tag sales have long helped keep reusable items out of the waste stream. Like recycling, reuse saves landfill space and requires less energy than manufacturing a product made either from virgin or recycled materials—and it serves to keep local dollars in local hands. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, “The potential to create new jobs through reuse is enormous. If the 25.5 million tons of durable goods now discarded were reclaimed through reuse businesses, more than 220,000 jobs could be created in this industry alone.”

In Vermont, more than 900 businesses, for-profit and non-profit alike, offer items for reuse. These businesses make used clothing, books, furniture, appliances, building supplies, and other products available to us. One of the largest, ReCycle North, a reuse business located in Burlington, provided 416 Vermonters with skills as community service workers, employed 58 staff persons, and provided the community with surplus and reusable items valued at nearly $500,000 in 1998.

A pollution prevention parable

Henry Ford once told car buyers that they could have a Model T in any color they liked—so long as it was black. He may not have considered himself as a pioneer of pollution prevention, but by offering the Model T in only one color, Ford prevented waste that would be generated by color change-out and clean-up operations.

The Blodgett Oven Company capitalized on Ford’s thinking for many years and recently went one step further. Blodgett, begun in 1848 and headquartered in Burlington, employs 300 Vermonters and is an industry leader in the manufacture of high-quality convection, deck, pizza, and conveyor-style commercial ovens and steamers. Blodgett customers, like those who wanted one of Ford’s Model T’s, for many years could purchase an oven in any color they liked—so long as it was black. Efforts to reduce waste have been a way of doing business at Blodgett for many years. Company policy specifically states that Blodgett “is committed to being an industry leader in the area of environmental protection. The Company will meet or exceed all applicable environmental laws and regulations in all its business activities.”

Air emissions associated with the painting of ovens, however, caused Blodgett to be ranked ninth among all Vermont manufacturing facilities for environmental releases during the early ’90s, as reported on the annual Toxics Release Inventory submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 1992, Blodgett generated more than 30,000 pounds of paint-related hazardous waste. To correct the situation, Blodgett implemented various pollution prevention strategies and was able to more than halve this amount in 1998. To go Henry Ford one better, the company decided to eliminate the painting of deck ovens entirely—and to use unpainted stainless steel panels instead. This change eliminated paint-related waste on the line entirely. With one decision, Blodgett scored a win for itself, a win for its customers, and a big win for the state’s environment.