Belmont taking ‘baby step’ on trash
Like many communities, town wary of pay-as-you-throw
MASSACHUSETTS’S ONGOING TRASH DILEMMA – having too much of it, but nowhere to put it – is trickling down to the local level across the state. Belmont recently faced a decision many communities are struggling with – trying to decide how aggressive the town should be in reducing the amount of trash residents generate.
Like many towns, Belmont currently has an unlimited trash policy, which means residents can put out any amount of refuse at the curb for pickup. As a result, the town’s residents tend to put out a lot of trash. Belmont produced 584 pounds of trash per capita last year, which is higher than the statewide average of 532 pounds per capita.
Belmont currently spends $2.5 million annually collecting and disposing of its trash. Cost is a big reason why many municipalities are trying to cut down on the amount of trash they generate, but environmental concerns – the desire to reduce the amount of waste that is buried in the ground or burned – is another motivating factor.
The debate in Belmont has focused primarily on two options, one that is aggressive and the other more of a baby step. The aggressive approach is called pay-as-you-throw, essentially a metering system for trash using special plastic bags or stickers. Residents typically pay a fee, usually between 75 cents and $3 per bag, so the more trash you throw out the more you pay. The approach incentivizes residents to throw out less and recycle more.
Because it tends to reduce the amount of trash put out for disposal, pay-as-you-throw can also reduce a municipality’s costs for garbage collection. Worcester, one of the first cities to adopt pay-as-you-throw and now the poster city for the program’s success, estimates $10 to $20 million in savings over the last two decades. Not all communities are happy with pay-as-you-throw, however. Fall River, which shifted to pay-as-you-throw three years ago, is considering doing away with it.
The downside to pay-as-you-throw is that it can be a radical shock to the system. Instead of putting trash out at the curb, residents have to put trash out in special bags or in bags with special stickers. They also have to pay a per-bag fee. Although the fee can be designed to be revenue neutral, residents often suspect pay-as-you-throw is a way for municipalities to squeeze more money out of them.
The Belmont Board of Selectmen considered the various trash options, but ultimately voted to seek bids only for a trash-hauling contract that would allow residents to dispose of 64 gallons of trash each week with no extra fees or charges. The selectmen also wanted each home to be issued a 64-gallon cart that would permit automated pickup, meaning the cart could be picked up by an arm attached to the garbage truck. A contract is expected to be finalized in late December.
The selectmen could not be reached for comment on their decision, but Jay Marcotte, Belmont’s Department of Public Works director, said the town is focused on automating its trash collection before taking other steps to reduce the amount of garbage collected. He also said the town shouldn’t make residents pay the trash bag fees associated with pay-as-you-throw on top of their taxes.
Belmont recycling coordinator Mary Beth Calnan described the shift to 64-gallon carts as a “baby step” toward reducing the municipality’s carbon footprint. She said she worried that trying to do pay-as-you-throw while moving to a more automated pickup system would be too much. “Our contract is coming to an end. If we don’t have a contract for picking up our trash, it’s going to be a health hazard,” Calnan said.
Kim Slack, chair of Sustainable Belmont, a local environmental organization, is a leading advocate for pay-as-you-throw. He said shifting to 64-gallon carts is the worst option for the town. He said the approach will cost the town more and do nothing to reduce the amount of trash generated.
“I think a majority of people want it,” he said of pay-as-you-throw. “When we have public hearings, a majority of people that show up are concerned about the environment and want the town to take action.”
“What’s most important is to make an informed decision,” he said. “You don’t know until you ask. And if you don’t ask, how do you know what is the best for the town’s interest?”
Michael Crowley, who sits on Belmont’s warrant committee and is a supporter of pay-as-you-throw, said many in town were baffled by the selectmen’s decision to consider only one approach. “The 64-gallon carts with automated collection will most likely cost more than two of the four original options that were being considered. But we’re not pricing those options so we’re not letting the market tell us anything,” Crowley said of the town’s single-choice bid.
A report sent by the Belmont Energy Committee to the Department of Public Works, time-stamped before the selectmen’s vote on the new contract bid, weighed the benefits and challenges of implementing pay-as-you-throw and automated collection. The report concluded that the pay-as-you-throw should be considered through the town bidding process, but noted that town administrators felt moving to automated collection of trash was more urgent. An alternative the report recommended was doing both in phases, a tall order for a town with a $4 million budget deficit looming on the horizon.
Brooke Nash, branch chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s municipal waste reduction program, said communities need to move at their own pace in reducing trash.“We think pay-as-you-throw is the best practice communities can take on,” he said. “But we also realize it’s not going to happen in every community and that it can be a very political issue. Not every community is ready for it.”