Recycling Thoughts

Best beloveds,
Mike had asked me to contribute a few words to the forthcoming Happiness Pony about the city’s proposed/updated recycling program.   What I ultimately compiled below is more than would fit into the normal HP article, and probably less polished than what I would usually write on the blog.  But since you haven’t heard from me in a while, I figured I’d share it with you.
1 – History/source of the problem
It’s easy to forget that when Worcester rolled out the pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program in 1993, it was relatively revolutionary.  We were certainly one of the largest communities in Massachusetts — if not New England and the country — that created an incentive to recycle by charging for trash pickup.  By all measures, the program has been very successful.  But it also hasn’t had any radical changes in the past 25 years.  Sure, the price of the yellow trash bag has gone up twice, the size of the recycling container has been increased (from 14 to 18 gallons), and we went to a single stream (no sort) recycling system in 2008.  But we haven’t moved beyond paying for trash removal and the basic recycling.
The city is now proposing that residents will purchase yellow trash bags (at a higher cost).  With the yellow plastic bags will come clear drawstring bags, which will be used for recycling (rather than the existing bins).  With this, the city is trying to address two issues: (1) the high rate of non-recyclable material in bins (which they estimate at 15% and say the “industry standard” is 0.5%) and (2) the quantity of recyclables that are blown into the street with open-topped bins.
Regarding the “contamination” of recyclables, the goal of 0.5% appears to be related to a Chinese requirement for inbound loads of recyclables.  Compared to other communities, Worcester’s contamination rate of 15% is actually pretty good.  The city of Lynn, MA, has a contamination rate of 25%, which is the national average, according to Waste Management.  So Worcester is better than the average.
The city administration says that clear bags will be an easy way to evaluate the recycling for contaminants, and that there would be an education campaign for those who don’t comply.  In fact, they were so enamored of the idea that they held a pilot program for the clear recycling bags.  According to them, “contamination in the clear bag, especially food waste, was a serious problem”, and in many cases it took repeated trips to a residence in order to achieve compliance.  I’m concerned that the (frankly unachievable) 0.5% contamination rate will be held over residents’ heads — when we’re already doing better than the rest of the nation when it comes to contamination.
From my perspective, the so-called single stream recycling has been the main contributor of recycling blowing into the street, and it appears that the city administration agrees.  But rather than go back to the old method (which was two-stream: bottles/cans/plastic on the bottom of a bin topped with a paper bag full of paper products to weigh down the potential flyaways), the city has decided that since people don’t get as much junk mail any more, they’ll continue with single-stream in clear plastic bags.  This doesn’t really make sense: we had a system that was working well, changed it, and are willing to go down other paths (that a pilot clearly proved wouldn’t work) rather than go back to a tried-and-true method.
2 – The point of a recycling program
It’s worth taking a step back and ask what the POINT of a recycling program is.  Very simply, it’s to reduce as much volume from the solid waste stream as possible, both to reduce the city’s overall tipping fee (cost to have our trash brought to Wheelabrator in Millbury) as well as to have a kinder impact on the environment.
The City of Worcester is as close to maximum rate of recycling as we can be.  Roughly 40% of the total picked up every week on the curb is recycling.  The city’s pilot program with clear plastic bags only increased recycling rates by 2-3%.  We cannot expect any great increases in recycling rates.
3 – Reduction of solid waste stream
So that leaves us with other ways to reduce the solid waste stream.
I very much like DPW’s proposal for the textile recycling program (for cloth items that cannot otherwise be used, and which the city estimates make up 8% of our solid waste stream), which hearkens back to the rag man of my father’s youth.  The trick of this program would be how frequently items would be picked up: someone might not want to hang onto a pair of jeans with a busted zipper for 3 months, but might do for a month.
There’s another good proposal, but one which doesn’t go far enough: expansion of hours for bulk item drop-off at the DPW facility at Millbury Street (to 7pm on Wednesdays and increased Sunday hours) as well as a reduction in the bulk fee to $5 for any item.  The prevention of illegal dumping is near to my heart, but this does not go far enough.
For starters:
1 – Bulk item drop-off should be year-round.  Currently Millbury Street drop-off closes in early November and doesn’t open until April.  Just as you don’t want to look at your old broken pair of jeans for months, you don’t want to have to hang onto a mattress with springs sticking out or dead TV for the winter months.  The waiting can encourage even the most civic-minded to consider illegal dumping or otherwise questionable trash practices.
2 – Yard waste drop-off should be allowed with Christmas tree drop-off.  There are certain streets that get placed too late on the calendar to be taken care of before the first snow, and last-minute oak leaves that don’t fall ’til late December.  Would it be more work to allow these drop-offs with Christmas trees?
3 – It would be nice to be able to pilot a program where one day a week (or every other week) drop-offs could be made without appointments.
4 – Compost
It has frustrated me that Worcester has gone from a city that innovated with recycling programs to one that is desperately trying to keep up with waste trends.  One area we are woefully behind in is compost.
The largest source of unnecessary waste in our stream is food scraps that could otherwise be composted.  I was incredibly disappointed — but not surprised — that the word “compost” was not mentioned once in the 19 page DPW report.
All of us produce food waste that does not need to go in yellow trash bags, then to Wheelabrator to be burned.
Many residences in this city don’t have land that can accommodate the space a bin takes and which can use the product it produces.  Other cities with similar situations are rolling out curbside compost programs.  To some in the city, large-scale compost sites, like the one that had been at Hope Cemetery, are associated with not-too-pleasant smells.  However, companies, including our very own city trash vendor, Casella, have created indoor compost facilities where compost is generated with minimal impact to neighbors.
Could Worcester roll out a pilot curbside compost program with as much enthusiasm as it put into putting recycling in clear plastic bags?  I think so.  Could the city have our own indoor compost venue that would complement the city’s existing program to provide compost to residents?  Probably.  Could we make compost a part of community garden programs, so that residents could leave food scraps in compost bins, which would in turn feed the garden with fresh soil?  Most definitely.
But all of this would require bins, which seem to be the latest DPW bugbear.
5 – Bins vs Clear Plastic Bags
There has been a petition circulating to encourage DPW to not use clear plastic bags for recycling.  If recycling blowing in the wind is a big concern, then the better solution would be a large, covered, wheeled 64-gallon cart for recycling.
The city administration evaluated large wheeled carts in a pilot program, but ultimately rejected them due to the risk of contamination, the difficulty in using them in densely populated neighborhoods with multi-family residences, the increase in recycling collection time, and the ultimate cost if it were a citywide solution.
The clear plastic bags are a dumb idea, but not any more dumb than any other dumb idea that’s come out of city hall in the last couple of decades.  They won’t decrease contamination, they won’t reduce waste, and they won’t increase recycling rates.  They may improve the city’s appearance — but that could be done with a move back to double-sort recycling.
I don’t want to diminish the concerns of those who don’t like the idea of clear plastic bags, especially as our leaders (and surrounding communities) look at banning plastic bags from retail outlets.  But we can, and should, think bigger and demand more.
The City of Worcester would do well to look at innovative solutions to reducing solid waste.
DPW and the city administration should also look to advocating for solutions at the statewide level.  Our previous DPW commissioner, upon retirement, decided to take lobbying money and fight against an expanded bottle bill.  We see the consequences of that all over our city in the form of plastic nip bottles and water bottles.  They don’t come out of people’s recycling bins — they come from those who think nothing of chucking them by the side of the road.  Many towns in the Commonwealth would like to see a deposit on these bottles — Worcester should join with them.
So many of our neighboring towns have moved to a pay as you throw model, decades after Worcester led the way.  If we moved towards curbside compost, and had a compost facility — commercial or otherwise — in Worcester, other communities might be willing to join and add to our efforts.
With the instability of the recycling market, we would do well to figure out other ways to reduce our solid waste.  Curbside textile recycling is a good start.  Compost would be even better.