Environmental risks are seldom assumed equally by everyone in society. Sometimes the consequences of waste management decisions are felt locally, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes a smaller number of Vermonters, by virtue of their proximity to air or water pollution sources or hazardous waste sites, assume a disproportionate share of the environmental health risks compared to the majority of Vermonters.
It is clear, for example, that while most Vermonters enjoy the benefits and the convenience afforded by trash collection and safe disposal in lined landfills, those living near those landfills must endure the possibility of decreased property values and increased noise, truck traffic, and litter. The idea behind environmental justice is to recognize these disproportionate impacts and to prevent or reduce them to the greatest extent possible.
Environmental justice is the pursuit of equal treatment and equal protection for all people under environmental statutes and regulations. During the past decade, attention to the impact of environmental pollution on particular segments of our society has been steadily growing. Community-based groups, environmental organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies have all raised the issue that minority populations and low-income communities sometimes bear disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects from pollution. This concern has resulted in a nationwide movement to assure environmental justice for all segments of society.
In Vermont, we're fortunate that a small number of landfills and transfer stations can serve our entire state. Nevertheless, avoiding potential injustice issues related to the siting of new landfills and transfer stations provides us with additional incentive to curtail consumption, stimulate reuse and recycling, and reduce the flow of trash to existing landfills. Prevention is the strategy of first choice when waste management options are considered, but it is still a challenge for consumers to identify and avoid disposable and over-packaged goods in the marketplace. Reuse opportunities for everything from automobiles and building supplies to clothing and computers are be ginning to abound. From 1987 to 1999, the amount of municipal solid waste recycled by Vermonters jumped from 12 to nearly 34 percent. Despite this, however, we did not see a corresponding decline in the amount of municipal solid waste landfilled or incinerated.
Fortunately, the long trend of ever-increasing amounts of trash going to Vermont landfills is finally beginning to show promise of -- if not reversal -- leveling off. In 1999, despite continued population growth, Vermonters generated less total trash and sent less of it to landfills. (See Table 1)
Vermont's Solid Waste Management Plan sets an ambitious goal to recycle 50 percent of all municipal waste generated by 2005. To achieve that goal, Vermonters will need to recycle a projected 112,000 additional tons of trash annually and reduce our disposal of municipal solid by 60,000 tons each year. Admittedly, that won't be easy, but the trend seen in 1999 suggests progress is possible.
The Hazardous Waste Manifest Database maintained by the Department of Environmental Conservation tracks the disposal of hazardous waste, regardless of how it was generated and who generated it. This means the totals include hazardous wastes generated by businesses and individuals, for both routine and non-routine events. The annual hazardous waste totals, therefore, are subject to rise or fall not only because of actual waste generation activities but also because of one-time "house-cleaning" events, debris disposal from environmental spills, site cleanups and other non-routine events. Considering all but the vagaries of non-routine waste generation, the trend for hazardous waste generation in Vermont has tracked a nearly consistent decline since 1992 -- a 38 percent decrease for the period 1992 to 1999. Total generation remained just below 17 million pounds in 1997, 1998, and 1999 despite the generally strong economy. (See Figure 1)
Environmental Excellence in Pollution Prevention
Each year since 1993, Governor Howard Dean has hosted a Statehouse ceremony to recognize Vermont individuals, organizations, institutions, public agencies, and businesses using innovative approaches that reduce or eliminate the generation of pollutants and wastes. To date, nearly 90 Vermonters have been recognized for their efforts. The Governor's Awards for Environmental Excellence in Pollution Prevention honor the foresight and actions taken by those Vermonters who have contributed to the protection of Vermont's environment, the safety of its citizens, and the health of its economy.
At the most recent awards ceremony, held in the fall of 2000, the accomplishments of Governor's Award winners were impressive. Through their individual and collective efforts, the three companies in the Large Business category alone, IBM, Stratton Mountain Resort, and Tivoly, had eliminated the need for 102,000 gallons of acids and solvents, 32,000 pounds of salt, and 73 tons of sand. They had prevented the generation of 850,000 pounds of hazardous waste and 13 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In aggregate, these companies achieved annual energy savings of more than 1.2 megawatt hours and conserved 2 million gallons of water. Annual cost savings for the four projects alone exceeded $750,000. (See sidebar) Again, proof positive that pollution prevention pays!