Boston Globe: Dedicated few reap gains from boost in recycling

By James O’Brien, Globe Correspondent
February 26, 2009

In Needham, where pay-as-you-throw for household trash has brought results, the recycling superintendent is stepping into the classroom to spread the gospel. In Wellesley, a strong recycling culture and education do the trick, while in Waltham, officials have held focus groups and are offering residents more than one free bin in different sizes, and with lids, to boost the city’s low recycling rate.

Meanwhile, state legislators from Acton, Newton, and Framingham have introduced bills to better support local recycling efforts and to expand the state’s bottle and can deposit system.

The efforts come even as the state Department of Environmental Protection has determined that Massachusetts will miss its goal of a 56 percent overall recycling rate by next year. The DEP’s most recent statewide numbers, from 2006, show recycling by homes, businesses and construction projects at 47 percent.

Laurie Burt, the agency’s commissioner, does not expect to close the 9 percent gap this year, but she said her department is “in the middle of reexamining our solid waste master plan, looking very closely at all ways to increase the recycling rate.”

It is a planning process that Burt expects to be complete by early next year, she said.

In the meantime, another key part of reaching the 56 percent goal, Burt said, are the measures being taken by legislators and local recycling coordinators.

State Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, proposes resuscitating the state’s Clean Environment Fund, which he said was folded into general spending over the past 10 years. Under his legislation, the fund would set aside at least 60 percent of unclaimed bottle and can deposits for waste reduction and recycling program grants.

“Towns and cities haven’t received proper support to expand recycling facilities,” Eldridge said. “Residents want to recycle, but they need tools to do that.”

At the same time, state Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, a Democrat from Newton, proposes an expansion of the state’s bottle bill to include noncarbonated beverages. Burt said such an expansion could lead to the recycling of “1.5 billion containers not currently tapped as part of our redemption program.”

And state Representative Pamela Richardson, a Framingham Democrat, proposes adding a penny to the handling fee received by bottle redemption centers, further ensuring their economic survival.

At the municipal level, increasing the number of pay-as-you-throw programs has been on the state’s agenda since the mid-1990s. The system requires residents to pay for household trash to be collected, by purchasing official bags or through a regular fee or both, but recycled materials are taken away for free, creating an incentive to recycle more. Currently, 124 of Massachusetts’ 351 municipalities employ pay-as-you-throw.

Needham had the highest rate among area communities, with 65 percent of the waste stream diverted to recycling, in 2007, the most recent figures available from the state. Its residents pay up to $1.50 for a trash bag.

“The pay-as-you-throw system is very key, it makes people more aware of what they’re throwing away,” said Mario E. Araya, Needham’s superintendent of solid waste and recycling. “Education is also key to our program. I’m going to be doing small presentations at the schools” to make youngsters aware of the importance of recycling.

In Wellesley, there is no pay-as-you-throw program, but the town is still doing well.

Wellesley earned a 56 percent recycling rate for 2007, the second highest in the area.

The incentive for Wellesley residents to recycle? Converting waste into revenue for the town.

Gordon Martin, superintendent of Wellesley’s recycling and disposal facility, said recycling generated $877,000 for the town’s general fund last year. “It’s become the culture in Wellesley to recycle,” he said. “We have a money-making operation.”

But that’s success born of decades of teaching and learning, according to Martin. When new residents move into town, he said, “We try to spend time with them and explain what to do.”

Waltham also recycles without a pay-as-you-throw program, but recycling coordinator Eileen Zubrowski described a scenario very different from Wellesley.

She said that some residents found it difficult “to believe that when they put something out to be recycled, that it was actually recycled. Public education has to be continual.”

Waltham scored an 11 percent recycling rate in 2007, according to the state, the lowest among area communities. However, Zubrowski said, improvements are underway. She has met with focus groups about recycling. The local newspaper carries recycling notices, and the bins, which formerly cost residents $5 after the first one, are now free and available in multiple sizes, and feature lids.

But what about pay-as-you-throw?

“It’s hard to think about asking families who are already struggling financially to pay more money for services,” Zubrowski said.

That pushback is common, said Greg Cooper, director of consumer programs for the state Department of Environmental Protection. There is assistance out there for towns that want it.

“We definitely, with any community that wants to explore pay-as-you-throw, we will provide technical assistance,” Cooper said. “We also provide grants for communities to help start the program, including an initial investment in education and bags, if needed.” Your browser may not support display of this image.