Chittenden Solid Waste District plans new $22 million Williston recycling facility

By Paul Ploumis

Chittenden Solid Waste District plans to construct a $22 million recycling facility in Williston, which it says will bring its trash management operations into the 21st century. 

The district is also working to install a new water line to improve composting and add an administrative building for staff.

The district’s current recycling facility — the first in Vermont — was built 29 years ago. It is severely outdated and has exceeded its capacity, according to Michele Morris, the district’s director of communications. 

“The new facility that we’re planning will be more efficient and effective and just allow Vermonters to recycle more types of packaging,” she said.

The Williston site is where 53% of Vermont’s “blue bin recyclables” go to be sorted, separated and baled before they can be sent off to be turned into new materials, according to a memo presented to the Chittenden district’s board of commissioners in March. 

The materials recovery facility or MRF, as it is called by waste district, was designed to manage 25,000 tons a year, but it processed 49,000 tons in fiscal year 2021, the memo states. 

The district’s expansion plan calls for a larger building and new technology that would automate the sorting of items currently separated by hand. These changes would allow the district to sort and recycle 70,000 tons, 40% more than its current capacity. 

If all goes according to plan, the project could break ground in 2023 and open in 2024.

On March 23, district commissioners approved a $22 million bond to pay for the expansion, which will be presented to Chittenden County voters on the November ballot. District leaders made assurances, however, that taxpayers would not have to shoulder the costs.

“This project is not going to affect their taxes,” Morris said.

Chittenden district officials are also looking for ways to reduce the bond amount and are considering grants, federal funds and zero-interest municipal loans. Whatever the final total turns out to be, they expect revenues will foot the bill.

In fiscal year 2021, the operating revenue for the facility was $7.2 million and $3.3 million was generated from the sale of materials. District officials expect the bond debt will be repaid with revenues from the sale of materials and the tipping fees for disposal, which they can adjust as needed.

The tipping fee — what haulers pay the district when they “tip out” material at the sorting facility — is currently $80 per ton. It increased from $65 to $80 per ton in March 2020.

“Leaping forward 30 years is expensive and a little scary, but we’ve done the due diligence and are confident that the time is right to invest in the future of recycling in Chittenden County,” Sarah Reeves, the district’s executive director, wrote in the memo to the board.

The Chittenden district has contracted with Casella Waste Systems to operate and manage the Williston facility since 1999. Casella, a private company, gets a portion of the tipping fees. Its recycling contract, set to expire June 30, has been extended through September. But the arrangement could change once the new facility is operational. Documents show the district is considering the possibility of taking over management of the new facility itself, or contracting with another vendor.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District, a municipal district created in 1987 to oversee and manage solid waste in Chittenden County, is the only publicly owned option in Vermont for processing recycling.

The district owns 60 acres on Redmond Road in Williston and a new facility would be built on the undeveloped land on the same road between IBM Road and the VELCO access road intersections, a couple of miles away from the existing building. It is expected to have a footprint of about 62,000 to 64,000 square feet, nearly double the size of the existing one. And it will have ample storage and space to allow future growth. 

The new sorting and packaging facility will include optical scanners, ballistic separators and robotics, according to the memo. That will allow it to expand what Vermonters can recycle — including plastic snap-off beer pack covers and black plastic containers such as takeout boxes, plant pots and shampoo bottles, which it currently cannot process, Morris said.

Andrew Brown, an Essex Junction trustee who viewed a Chittenden district presentation last week, said he thinks the expansion is important. “We all know that, in order to help prevent recyclable materials from entering our landfill, we need to be able to recycle more,” he said. 

Observing that the recycling market has “changed drastically,” Brown said, “we need a new facility that can meet the current demand as well as our future recycling needs.”

Bryn Oakleaf, a Winooski city councilor who is also a Chittenden Solid Waste District commissioner, said the upgrade is critical for Vermont to stay competitive in the recycling market and for the district to meet its long-term waste management goals. 

Williston has been a district member and the host town for the recycling facility for many years, and the solid waste district has been a good neighbor, Williston Town Manager Erik Wells said in an email. The “much needed facility” will help “to continue to reduce and manage waste in an environmentally conscious, effective and innovative way,” 

The town’s Development Review Board has not yet received an application for a zoning permit, but the facility is an allowed use in the industrial zone, and town officials have been briefed on the project, Wells said.

The district has separately received approval from Williston officials to build a 2,500-foot waterline extension from IBM Road to its composting facility. That project is expected to break ground in a month or two.

The district currently trucks in the water needed to compost food scraps and yard debris, a far more expensive option than having a water line, according to Morris. The line will bring water to three of the Chittenden district’s facilities — the recycling facility, the compost facility and a new administrative building in the works.

The administrative building would be in a vacant lot south of the compost center. The district has  about 50 full-time workers, 20 of whom are office staff and work out of an old house on the Redmond Road property.

“That’s not all that super exciting I think for the public, but it’s very exciting for our staff (who have) been working out of an old repurposed split-level home for years,” Morris said. 

The proposed 10,000-square-foot building and parking lot would provide a modern, well-ventilated workspace. That project is currently in the design phase.

Both projects are in the Chittenden district’s capital budget and have been approved by the board and member towns.