A forest can teach us a lot about how to properly manage resources. Vermont’s forests are anything but wasteful. Powered by solar energy, the many biogeochemical cycles of nature ensure that energy and materials continually flow through forests, from the living to the non-living and back to the living parts.

Paul Hawken, in his book The Ecology of Commerce, writes that it is a natural human reaction to avoid waste. “Nothing is more basic,” Hawken states, “than the proposition that disposal of hazardous wastes is not the root problem. Rather, it is the root symptom. The critical issue is the creation of toxic wastes.”

Pollution prevention, or source reduction, offers itself as the management strategy of first choice because it avoids the generation of waste in the first place. Rather than arguing about how to treat or where to put the wastes we create, our society needs to design systems that imitate the cycles of nature whereby we reduce — if not eliminate — waste. Some Vermont companies today are doing just that.

Vermont Businesses Leading the Way

Reuse is at the very heart of what happens in a forest. Where we create reuse opportunities for materials and products, we extend their useful life span. Residuum, a company in Barre, salvages reusable building supplies from construction sites and resells them from its warehouse. By intercepting materials in this way, builders avoid paying trash disposal fees, someone enjoys a substantial discount on quality building supplies, and the demand for additional resources to create new building supplies is reduced. Similarly, Second Harvest Salvage & Demolition reclaims older structures and reuses or offers for sale everything from flooring and molding to framing materials.

Like a forest, the Riverside Eco-Industrial and Agricultural Park in Burlington’s Intervale has come to life by using the resources immediately available to it and is producing minimal waste. At one end of the Intervale, Gardener’s Supply uses waste heat from the McNeil wood-burning power station to warm its store. Further into the Intervale, a seed company, The Cooks’ Garden, tests and demonstrates its special vegetable and herb varieties, a subscription farmer sells shares to local residents in exchange for seasonal produce, several farmers grow perennial and cut flowers, and a farmer grows organic produce for the kitchens of Fletcher Allen Health Care.

Deeper into the Intervale, an urban composting project combines yard and food wastes with wastewater from the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant to make fertilizer sold to area farmers, gardeners, and landscapers. The more industrial aspect of the park will include Living Technologies, a company that designs and builds biological wastewater treatment systems to treat sewage by converting it to clean water and nutrients that will help grow flowers, decorative plants, and fish.

Fifty miles south in the village of Forest Dale, New England Woodcraft, Inc., manufactures household and institutional furniture. The owners of the facility determined a decade ago that their plant was emitting significant amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and that the nitrocellulose coatings they were using contained toxic and carcinogenic ingredients, such as formaldehyde. The plant was also generating significant amounts of solid and hazardous waste.

The company in 1988 began testing water-based coatings as a replacement for traditional nitrocellulose coatings. In 1990, New England Woodcraft switched to a water-based coating and installed a coating system that employs a reciprocating arm equipped with photoelectric sensor-controlled spray nozzles that adjust for wide and narrow boards.

The pre-mixed water-based emulsion finishes now used at New England Woodcraft contain no formaldehyde and only 1.67 pounds of VOCs per gallon of finish, a 75 percent reduction when compared to nitrocellulose finishes. Moreover, the water-based finish covers more area with less material. These factors have combined to reduce VOC emissions at the facility from 90 tons to 9 tons annually, a 90 percent reduction. The company is also generating 90 percent less hazardous waste.

Each year, manufacturing companies must report their transfers and releases of nearly 700 hazardous chemicals determined to be toxic. This information is reported through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI. Although TRI data represent only waste generation and reduction activity at the state’s largest industrial facilities, they are important indicators for measuring industry’s commitment to pollution prevention.

The most recent Toxics Release Inventory continues to show a decrease in the release of toxic chemicals into the environment (Figure 1). Of the 35 Vermont facilities that submitted TRI reports in 1996, approximately two-thirds have already developed and implemented many waste reduction strategies included in state-mandated pollution prevention plans.

Managing Biosolids and Septage

Redefining waste as a resource continues to be a major challenge facing those who manage the state’s biosolids and septage. Around the country, wastewater treatment facilities now dispose of 54 percent of their sludge, or biosolids, by spreading it on the land. Biosolids augment soils on rural crop lands, forests and grazing lands. It’s also used on golf courses, in parks, and to rehabilitate heavily eroded lands. Everyone contributes to either the generation of biosolids or septage. Biosolids are created as a by-product of the sewage treatment process, and septage is produced from septic systems. Wastewater from approximately 47 percent of Vermont’s population is treated at wastewater treatment facilities, and septic systems serve the remainder of the state’s population. Of the nearly 22 million gallons of septage pumped annually in Vermont, more than half of it (58 percent) is transported to wastewater treatment facilities, where it is treated and results in the generation of biosolids. The remaining 42 percent of the septage is directly land-applied, after being treated with lime. In 1997, Vermont’s wastewater treatment plants, which do a terrific job in helping keep the state’s rivers and lakes clean, produced about 82 million gallons of biosolids.

Beneficial uses of biosolids include land application or further processing for unregulated uses, such as composting. Disposal can include de-watering followed by landfilling or incinerating. An estimated 6,827 dry tons of biosolids were generated in Vermont in 1997; of that, approximately 40 percent was beneficially used, and 60 percent was disposed by landfilling or incineration (Figure 2).

While great strides have been made in recycling and reuse of other waste streams, there has been a substantial decline in beneficial use of biosolids, from about 98 percent in 1987 to the 40 percent of 1997. While the amount of biosolids being composted has increased, there has been a significant decline in direct land application.

Vermont's beneficial use of biosolids is below the national average of 54 percent and lower than some northeastern states, such as Maine, which reuses 90 percent.

Thinking Like a Forest

The paramount environmental challenge facing us today as Vermonters is a personal one. The cumulative impacts of our daily actions — how we dispose of our trash, our driving habits, the everyday items we choose to buy — have a tremendous effect on Vermont’s environment and on the entire Earth. There are dozens of painless ways we can more closely align our daily actions and behaviors with those we would find in a forest community. The following provide but a few examples of how we can do this:

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