Recycling Economics

When it comes to recycling, it sure seems easy to be green these days: After all, everyone knows that the more a community recycles, the more it saves on trash disposal costs, right? So why are the state’s biggest cities lagging behind?

Boston recycles only 10 percent of its residential garbage, according to the most recent figures available; the same with Fall River. New Bedford is barely better, at 12 percent.

In fact, only three of the state’s 10 largest cities are recycling enough paper, metal, glass, plastic, and yard waste to earn an “A” on the most recent “Recyling Report Card” compiled by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Worcester is the star of the show, at 57 percent, while Springfield and Cambridge at least made it over 30 percent, the cutoff for an “A”.

Why recycle? Several years ago, Jeffrey Lissack, then of the Solid Waste Division of the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection, offered the following explanation: “The average citizen thinks we’re recycling because we’re running out of landfill space. We’re not running out of landfill space. We recycle to avoid the adverse impacts of landfilling or burning solid waste. We can avoid these impacts by spending money on control technologies or we can recycle. The choice boils down to economics.”
State environmental officials acknowledge the larger municipalities have a long way to go. “They’ve made good progress, but there are significant gains still to be made,” says Scott Cassel, director of waste policy for the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

Every city and town “should easily be able to” recycle between 35 and 40 percent of its residential waste, Cassel says, and “eventually” should make it to 45 to 60 percent. Some 181 communities are currently recycling 30 percent or more of their household trash, state figures show.

So what’s the problem with the urban areas?

Convincing local officials that community-wide curbside recycling is the right thing to do is not as simple as it seems. About two-thirds of the state’s 351 cities and towns are saving money by recycling, according to Cassel. But many of the others will only see savings when they recycle a greater proportion of their garbage.

“It’s a little tricky. The recycling will cost more for those communities initially, but the payoff is when they reach high rates,” Cassel says. “So those officials need to think like business people and they need to invest… spend a little more up front for big savings on the back end.”

Some cities offer recycling of just a few materials, or in only a few neighborhoods. Lynn, for example, has been recycling only paper (though it was considering adding materials this summer). Fall River has been slowly expanding its program, but still only about half of the city’s 30,000 households with municipal trash service have curbside recycling of any kind.

Another big-city problem Cassel notes is the large number of apartment buildings, whose owners hire their own trash-haulers and may choose not to provide recycling at all.

Even in communities with extensive opportunities, it can be tough to persuade people to participate – all the more difficult when many residents don’t speak English, Cassel says.

Municipal Recycling Rates
Worcester 57%
Springfield 35%
Cambridge 31%
Lowell 24%
Brockton 21%
Quincy 16%
Lynn 16%
New Bedford 12%
Boston 10%
Fall River 10%
Orange 71%*
State Average 28%**
*Orange had the state’s highest residential recycling rate in fiscal year 1998.

**Estimate for calendar year 1997, the most recent figure available


State environmental officials have found that the best way to get people to recycle is to institute so-called “pay-as-you-throw” programs, which charge residents based on how much trash they discard. Of the 10 biggest cities, only Worcester has such a system.

Cassel says the state is encouraging more communities to start “pay-as-you-throw” programs, and to show residents the financial benefits of recycling by using some of the savings to improve waste collection or enhance parks.

The Department of Environmental Protection is also trying to help by offering cash rewards to municipalities for each ton of waste recycled, and distributing grants for equipment purchases and publicity.

Despite some disappointing city recycling rates, Cassel points out that the state is doing well overall. About 85 percent of Massachusetts residents have access to recycling and 77 percent have access to curbside collection.

Plus, he notes, residential recycling is only part of the picture. Massachusetts generates more than 11 million tons of solid waste per year. About 3 million tons is household garbage; 4 million is commercial waste; 4 million is construction and demolition debris.

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The state has a goal of recycling 46 percent of its household and commercial trash – known as municipal solid waste – by the year 2000. About 34 percent was recycled in 1997, the most recent figure available. That’s up from 10 percent in 1990.

“We’re in the top five or 10 states across the country, so we’re very pleased with the success of our recycling programs to date,” Cassel says.