Laura Petit, involved in a long career in public service, retired at the end of last year from the job of recycling coordinator in New Paltz. Petit took on the role in 2008, redefining a position that had been part of then-highway superintendent Phil Johnson’s duties, transforming the facility at the end of Clearwater Road from the “town dump” it was sometimes still called at the time into a “reuse center” where a significant amount of material was removed from the waste stream altogether.
The New Paltz program is now seen as a model for how to approach the goal of zero waste. It’s also a program entirely supported by outside grants and user fees, which no doubt pleases a portion of the populace.
When Petit took the reins in March, 2008, the office was a ramshackle trailer with a nearby port-a-potty, and the operation was running at a $10,000 annual deficit. More than 800,000 pounds of garbage was collected that year.
The office is now a permanent structure, separate from the retail-style space/ Considerable amount of landscaping has been put in using materials brought in for disposal. There’s also sheds provided by members of the Bruderhof community, used to support different innovative ways to get items that have useful life remaining into hands that will use them. Last year just 267,000 pounds of material was deemed solid waste, and more money was collected than expended on the operation.
“It’s a fallacy that you have to bring in waste to make money,” Petit said.
Prior to the highway superintendent overseeing the operation, others have served as the town’s recycling coordinator, including Manna Jo Greene, a county legislator who has long advocated for reducing solid waste. At other times an outside contractor has managed the facility, which was the incubator for the Hudson Valley Materials Exchange, a nonprofit which was dissolved upon the retirement of its founder, Jill Gruber.
Petit used the several trailers full of materials from HVME to continue the work of finding second life for objects and materials destined for landfills, such as in construction or art. Thanks to Petit’s efforts in applying for grants, there’s now a permanent building dedicated to that work specifically, where staffers organize the material with as much care as may be found in a retail store. Petit said that 25 to 30 tons of material is diverted from landfills every year via the reuse center. That’s 25 to 30 tons of garbage that isn’t getting trucked to a landfill in western New York, where the county’s waste is presently bound. This includes larger items such as bicycles, and medical devices like wheelchairs. There’s also now a program where one can borrow tools for several weeks.
Grants have been an important part of improving the New Paltz programs under Petit’s leadership. Grants have paid for a tub grinder that can turn any sort of brush or milled wood into mulch, while pulling out nails during the process. A grant paid for a dump truck, and a skid steer, and a loader that have been used to expand composting. Anyone with a permit can drop material off for composting, including meat, for free. There’s now a minimum two tons of material that must be composted by law, but in New Paltz as much as 450 tons of organic waste has been composted in some years. That amount doesn’t include the food that is diverted from the compost pile into the bellies of humans or other animals, either.
The center is a storage hub for produce and other perishable donations that are distributed to food pantries through the Hudson Valley Food Bank; 27 tons of food flowed through there in 2020 thanks to the efforts of a large network of volunteers to distribute it through a variety of programs. Other animals benefit from programs such as pumpkin collections; cows and chickens particularly enjoy those in their meals, according to Petit.
One regret Petit holds is that not enough construction material can be recycled as yet. Wood can be, but roofing shingles and other materials remain a challenge. Those can fill up landfills quite quickly.
The town’s recycling center has been transformed in appearance and purpose with Petit at the helm. There is a longstanding philosophy in the town that one must pay for the right to recycle materials or dispose of waste, and there are now systems in place to ensure that all users have a permit. Not even Petit got to use the center without one, and permits for town employees have to be paid for like any other. There are chutes in place where users drop their recycling; this allows employees to pull out anything that can’t be recycled. The quality of the recycling sent out from New Paltz is among the highest, Petit has been told. The center has also been the site of movies and round table discussions focused on the solid-waste practices foisted on people via a corporate culture focused on profit before planet. It’s been called a “recycling town” by engineer Andy Willingham, while former town supervisor Susan Zimet referred to it as Petit’s “little kingdom.”
Reached for comment, Zimet said, “Laura Petit took a town dump and transformed it into a home for recycled treasures. Laura’s commitment to treating waste as a commodity has been the seed for so many great programs such as the recycling center, bike share, the med shed, tool share and so much more. Under Laura’s leadership, New Paltz won recognition from the EPA for our work on the zero-waste program over a number of years. As a woman in a position of power, Laura was not always treated with the respect she deserved, but she always held her head high and would never give up or give in. Laura is a strong, kind, generous woman and a great mother and friend. Laura will be a hard act to follow.”
Petit considers Manna Jo Greene — a predecessor in the role of town recycling coordinator — to be a mentor, as the two first worked closely together some years ago when Petit was employed through the county’s resource recovery agency. They are also presently colleagues serving together in the county legislature; Petit intends on running for reelection to that post. Petit wrote a zero-waste plan for the county over the summer, and has met weekly with stakeholders who are “dissecting and reassembling it so we have a comprehensive standalone document” to incorporate into the county’s solid waste management plan. Until recently that group included John Wackman, a noted New Paltz environmentalist who died this past week; Petit said that the “resource and materials recovery park” described in that plan may be named after Wackman. As a legislator from Esopus, the registered Democrat made a bid to be elected chair of that body in 2020.
Petit considers Manna Jo Greene — a predecessor in the role of town recycling coordinator — to be a mentor, as the two first worked closely together some years ago when Petit was employed through the county’s resource recovery agency. They are also presently colleagues serving together in the county legislature; Petit intends on running for reelection to that post.
A resident of Esopus, Petit feels a sense of belonging in New Paltz, saying, “This is my community.” However, after 31 years working in the public sector, Petit knew it was time to step back from most paid work and begin collecting a modest pension. Government work was never quite enough for the mother of five to put food on the table; Petit reports having at times holding down as many as six jobs, ranging from riding as one of the spooky “storytellers” on the haywagon at Headless Horseman to being a contract knitter who could turn out a sweater every day. Back when town meetings were held in person, Petit — along with the late Carol Roper — was known for knitting during long and tense discussions on budgets and building plans. Residents of Esopus might expect to be hearing the clacking of Petit’s needles once the pandemic is in the past. “I love knitting,” and meetings have proven to be a good venue for it. The desire to work for change remains, but Petit wants the next chapter to be free of the political challenges faced by any municipal employee.
Recycling has proven to be one of the beneficiaries of the ongoing pandemic. After the facility was locked down in March, workers there were deemed essential and the reuse center was reopened with precautions and “a new perspective on cleaning,” Petit recalled. With most people stuck at home, they were “looking for stuff to do,” which for many meant yard working and cleaning out long-neglected spaces such as attics and garages. Both of those added to a heavy stream of material headed down Clearwater Road by the end of April, and then, “Holy cow, lots of renovations, and our revenues quadrupled.” A surge of cardboard has also been seen; Petit believes this is a combination of people ordering more online, as well as people moving to this area because it appears to be a safer place to weather a pandemic. The decision was made to restrict the center to town residents only for the first time since Petit worked there.
The current town supervisor, Neil Bettez, is tasked with finding Petit’s replacement. Bettez said of Petit, “The town has been incredibly fortunate to have Laura at the helm of our recycling department for the last ten years. She has made the town a leader in the field through her dedication and innovation, and has transformed the transfer station into a model organization focused on minimizing waste through community education. Laura and her team spearheaded New Paltz’s zero waste partnership program with the EPA, wrote New Paltz’s comprehensive zero waste action plan, and coordinated with local businesses, schools and governments to establish a network of information and support for sustainable materials management. The zero waste action plan, food recovery program, and sustainable materials management policy have increased donations to local charities every year since they began, while increasing revenue and reducing expenses for the town. Laura gained national recognition for her efforts in creating a food recovery hub that connects distribution warehouses with local food pantries. She has created a strong legacy and we are grateful for all her efforts on behalf of the town.”
“There’s always more to be done for zero waste,” Petit said. The work done in New Paltz may not be finished, but the efforts thus far put this community in a very strong position for facing the challenges that lie ahead.