CHITTENDEN — What we throw away, and how, has changed over the past two decades. Few know that better than Elmer Wheeler.
Though he’s retired now, Wheeler is the caretaker of the Chittenden Transfer Station. He’s been there, he estimates, 28 years, and remembers the days when it was more or less an open area where people threw whatever they deemed trash.
“When I first started, it used to be an open dump,” he said Thursday. “It used to be here in the middle, people would throw whatever in, and you had a bucket loader to keep it packed down with.”
These days, there’s a long list of what can’t be thrown in the trash. According to the Agency of Natural Resources, mercury-added products have been banned since 2007, electronic devices since 2011, mandated recyclables since 2015, leaf and yard debris and clean wood since 2016, and food waste since 2020.
The transfer station can take some things, but Wheeler said it will no longer take light bulbs, anything with Freon, and as of late, no brush; though it plans to accept leaves and sticks less than an inch thick.
Wheeler said the food scrap law removed quite a bit of material from the traditional waste stream. He is one of three who monitor the station, helping people put their waste in the right place. Trash still goes in a large bin.
“I could do three weeks on that dumpster now, where before it was every week,” he said. “Recycling, compost, all of that stuff used to go in there, it would be full every week. On holidays, I’d have to have another dumpster, now holidays come and go like every other week.”
The Chittenden Transfer Station is open Fridays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For the most part, people put their waste where it belongs, he said.
“When it goes in, it goes in. I have no right to open trash bags, so it’s pretty much on you to be doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said, adding that he also has no desire to open people’s trash bags.
What does get watched is the zero-sort recycling.
“They’ll try putting coat hangers, which are hard plastic, they’ll try Styrofoam which they don’t want in there, plastic bags they don’t want in there, they’ll try batteries, light bulbs, they’ll try anything,” he said. “We have people ask what can go in and what can’t, and we tell them, but you tell the same ones week after week after week, you can’t put this in there, but they do it anyway.”
If something is dirty, he said, it’s garbage. He recommends people wash their recyclables before bringing them to the transfer station, and to consider whoever might have to clean that down the line.
“We tell them if it’s dirty, it’s garbage. They say, well, it’s recyclable, I say put yourself on that sorting line where people have to deal with this stuff,” he said. “We’ve had stuff come in with mold in the cans, it’s still got spaghetti sauce and barbecue sauce and all that stuff, I say, ‘no that’s garbage.’”
Occasionally people will toss something that’s still usable, like furniture, children’s toys, or sporting equipment. These things get set aside for whomever might want them. Proceeds from returnable bottles get sent to the local senior center. There used to be a book swap, but the person who agreed to run it could no longer do so, ending that practice.
Wheeler said one person used to be able to run the place, but now it takes three to four. He’s fine with that, he’s enjoyed talking to the townspeople who come through. Occasionally the line will back up and he’ll have to cut a conversation off.
According to Elle O’Casey, director of communicators for the Agency of Natural Resources, on average, every American produces 4.9 pounds of trash per day, or 1,642 per year. Of that, 231 pounds is plastic. Vermonters, in 2019, produced an average of 1,427 pounds of trash per year per person, or about 3.9 pounds per day. She stated that Vermont’s goal is to get it closer to 1,000 pounds per person annually, which is about the average in Europe.