New Hampshire’s new state report about solid waste includes the fact that other states are shipping tens of thousands of tons of trash to New Hampshire landfills because it’s cheaper, but perhaps the most surprising thing is that it really shouldn’t surprise us at all. “In some weird way, China has done us a favor” by upending the world’s recycling markets, said Karen Ebel, a state representative who chaired the legislative committee that wrote the report. “It has pointed out the warts, if you will, in what’s going on here. We really need to wake up and take some action.”

A big part of that action, the report recommended, should be a kind that isn’t popular in New Hampshire: spending more on state government. “Through a process of budget cuts, the department within the Solid Waste Management bureau that used to be involved in community assistance, recycling, that sort of thing – basically it has gone away,” said Ebel, a Democrat from New London. “If you don’t have a (Department of Environmental Services) that’s really working on what the heck we’re going to do with the solid waste in our state, you leave the municipalities floundering, trying to figure it all out in a global market.”

Municipalities, which under state law are responsible for disposing of waste, are floundering because the cost of recycling has soared since China stopped accepting most of it in 2018. Many cities and towns have curtailed or even ended their recycling programs, sending material to landfills or incinerators instead. The resulting outcry helped prompt the creation of the Committee to Study Recycling Streams and Solid Waste Management in New Hampshire, made up of three state representatives and Sen. David Watters, D-Dover. It held 14 meetings and took testimony from “over 50” individuals, businesses and government entities, and quickly realized that figuring out what to do with empty soda bottles, used cardboard and garbage is part of a very large, very complicated issue.

“The thing about this is it affects everybody. It affects business, government, it affects individuals. There’s nobody who doesn’t use things that ultimately will generate some waste. It’s just a universal issue and something that we really need to do a better job of dealing with,” Ebel said.

In 1990, the state Legislature set a goal of keeping 40% of the waste generated in the state from going to landfills by the year 2000. That’s an admirable goal, but it turns that nobody knows if it was accomplished because nobody keeps track of how much waste is generated in the first place.

“Calculating the percentage of solid waste diverted is inherently difficult in that it includes source reduction which involves changes made in the manufacture of products. (Department of Environmental Services) does not regulate at the point of manufacture, but rather at the solid waste facilities which it permits. … DES does not know, in part due to this issue, what our current diversion rate is and so the level of success in achieving the 40% diversion goal is unknown,” the report says.

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