Seriously, is this the best we can do?

In 2013, we paid $163m burying or burning materials that could have sold for $217m

FOR YEARS, HOMEOWNERS in Lynn faced no restrictions on their trash output. Technically, their weekly allotment was six barrels of trash, yet if additional barrels were put out at the curb they were always picked up. Mattresses, couches, and other large items were collected at no cost. But in December new regulations took effect limiting each household to one 64-gallon cart of trash per week. If homeowners need to throw away more, they now have to use special purple bags costing $3 apiece. Disposing of a mattress or a couch costs $20.

In a city with one of the lowest recycling rates in the state, Lynn officials are hoping the new trash regulations will make people think twice before they throw items that can be recycled into the trash. The goal is to reduce the amount of trash that has to be burned at a Saugus waste-to-energy plant at a cost of $64 a ton. Last year, Lynn spent more than $2 million burning its trash, and city officials say as much as 80 percent of that trash could have been recycled.

Julia Greene, the city’s recycling coordinator, says the new regulations recognize that business-as-usual trash policies cannot continue. “Lynn can’t afford it,” she says. “No one can.”

Trash is one of those problems that stares Massachusetts residents in the face on a daily basis. Yet it gets almost no attention because few people are exposed to the ick factor of landfills and trash incinerators. We put our trash out at the curb and it goes away. But now we are starting to run out of places to put it. Landfills, where trash is dumped on the ground and buried, are filling to capacity and shutting down. No new trash incinerators are being built. Exports are the lone growth area; the state currently projects that trash shipments out of state will double over the next six years. Many experts are betting that trash disposal costs will rise sharply as our dumping options become more limited.

What’s most alarming about the state’s trash problem is that it’s so preventable. We know how to cut trash output and we know to turn recycled materials into money and jobs. We just don’t do it. “What we’ve done for the last 30 years hasn’t done much at all,” says Stephen Lisauskas, the vice president of government affairs at WasteZero, a North Andover company that works with municipalities to reduce their trash output and increase recycling. “We’re throwing away a lot of money we shouldn’t be.”

Part of the problem is political. The state’s environmental and business communities have been locked in a struggle over the bottle deposit law for most of the last 30 years, first to pass the bill and then to expand its reach. The struggle has tended to overshadow the state’s larger trash problems. Voters in November overwhelmingly rejected a ballot question that would have expanded bottle deposits, and there have been some attempts since then to find common ground, but the fight goes on.

The other challenge is the mindset of most state residents. They don’t think of trash disposal like other municipal services. Cities and towns charge on a metered basis for water and sewer services — the more you use the more you pay. But only about a third of the state’s 351 cities and towns charge for trash the same way. Most municipalities let their residents think there’s no limit on the amount of trash they can put out at the curb. As a result, those communities on average throw away about 55 percent more trash than communities that charge residents a per-bag fee.
Even Lynn officials acknowledge their recent move to limit trash output to one, 64-gallon cart a week is a baby step along the path to trash reduction. The new carts are designed as much to automate the trash pickup process as they are to limit trash disposal. A family putting out one cart of trash per week could still generate an estimated 2,330 pounds of trash per year, or about 863 pounds for each person in a typical Lynn home. That’s 45 percent more trash than the average Massachusetts resident generates.

Andrew Hall, the head of Lynn’s Department of Public Works, says the city’s approach is a realistic one. There was pretty strong resistance to the new 64-gallon-a-week trash cap, so he says he never seriously considered going with a program that would have charged residents based on the amount of trash they put out at the curb. “People would show up here with knives and pitchforks if I did that,” he says.


State environmental officials dutifully publish 10-year plans, complete with detailed trash reduction goals, but they always seem to come up short. In 1990, the 10-year plan called for 54 percent of the state’s trash to be buried or burned and 46 percent recycled. When 2000 rolled around, the state was burning or burying 66 percent of its trash and recycling 34 percent. By 2010, we were supposed to be burning or burying 2.1 million tons of trash per year. Instead, we did more than twice that amount — 4.7 million tons. By 2020, the current plan calls for getting that number down to nearly 3.8 million tons, and then to 1 million by 2050.

No one is putting much stock in the numbers. Even the Department of Environmental Protection, which develops the 10-year plans, outlines two scenarios for 2020 — a baseline recycling scenario, where recycling keeps pace with trash generation, and an increased recycling scenario, where recycling grows at a much faster pace. The dual scenarios typify a bureaucracy sending out mixed signals.

State environmental officials have the tools to curb the burial and burning of trash, but they lack the money and the clout to put those tools to good use. The budget of the state’s environmental protection agency, which has responsibilities that go way beyond trash, was cut 25 percent during the Great Recession and never bounced back. The number of employees working at the agency is down 30 percent from a decade ago, and their absence is reflected in ways big and small. One small example: the state’s data on trash and recycling at the municipal level are full of holes; many cities and towns don’t even both to file reports with the state anymore.

Waste bans are one of the tools at the disposal of state officials, but they aren’t enforced aggressively. In 1990, the state started banning easily recyclable items from landfills and incinerators and the list of banned items has grown over time to include paper, textiles, plastic, metal, glass, and food waste. Yet for years the state enforced the bans with what might be called an honor system. Finally, three full-time inspectors were hired in October 2013, but they seem to spend most of their time educating people about the bans. If a truck dropping trash off at a landfill or an incinerator contains banned items, state officials say the inspectors trace the banned materials back to the source and work with the generator to remove them. A request to accompany an inspector on the job was turned down.

State data indicate nearly half of the trash being burned or buried in Massachusetts could be recycled, which means residents are paying millions of dollars to dispose of valuable commodities. WasteZero estimates municipalities and businesses spent nearly $163 million in 2013 disposing of just seven types of recyclables — including plastics, textiles, metals, and paper — that could have been sold for $217 million.

Janet Domenitz, the executive director of the Massa-chusetts Public Interest Research Group, says the state’s trash problems need a lot more visibility. She worked as part of an enforcement committee that helped craft the state’s master plan for 2020, and came away thinking that it’s time for a highly visible crackdown on trash scofflaws that would make waste disposal a front-burner issue. “I don’t want to hear about education anymore. I want someone to pay a fine that hurts,” she says. “We need to ratchet it up big time.”

Many believe the state’s trash issues will gain greater visibility if the cost of disposal rises. Trash generation fell during the recession and disposal prices fell, too. Now that the economy is beginning to recover, the expectation is that people will buy more and throw more things away. But this trash growth is coming at a time when landfills are closing and no new incinerators are being built. An estimated 1.5 million tons of landfill capacity in Massachusetts is expected to be lost by 2020. The only place for the trash to go is out of state to more garbage-friendly locales such as New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Kurt Macnamara of the Devens Recycling Center, which processes construction and demolition debris and ships a lot of it out of state by train to Ohio, predicts waste disposal costs are going to jump 20 percent this year as waste volumes increase and the space available for trash disposal shrinks. “It’s a very quiet, slow-moving storm, but when it hits it’s going to be bad,” he says.

Others are not so sure. Wheelabrator, which runs a waste-to-energy plant in Millbury, just cut the prices it charges many of its municipal clients from $76 to $64 per ton. Thomas Cipolla, the business manager who works for the Covanta SEMASS waste-to-energy plant in Rochester, says disposal costs are down significantly from where they were four to five years ago. “I don’t know that there’s going to be an increase in the future, but it’s possible,” he says. “It’s all supply and demand.”

The supply of trash could be affected by a major new recycling initiative, as well as a new technology to turn waste into a fuel that could replace coal in coal-fired power plants. The new technology is unfolding at a $34 million, 100,000-square-foot facility under construction in Rochester that would take as much as 2,000 tons of trash per day and compress it into charcoal-like briquettes. Michael Camara, a waste hauler from New Bedford and an investor in the project, says the briquettes would burn cleaner than coal. The briquettes could only be sold to power plants outside Massachusetts because of a cap on burning trash inside the state.

Meanwhile, state officials are counting on an ambitious new food waste recycling program to reduce the state’s trash volume. The program requires any institution generating more than one ton of food waste each week (think restaurants and supermarkets) to divert it to food banks, composting facilities, and anerobic digesters, which convert food scraps into methane gas that can be used to generate electricity. Officials estimate the program could remove 300,000 tons of organics from the state’s waste stream, enough to fill the equivalent of about seven Fenway Parks.

David Cash, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, says the new food waste initiative, along with other state efforts to boost recycling, should be able to curb trash generation and keep disposal costs in check. He acknowledges solid waste is a difficult nut to crack, but he says the state is not facing a sky-is-falling situation. “I would not say the situation is of crisis proportions,” he says. “I would say it’s serious.”



Gerry Duggan holds some of the trash-compacted briquettes at a waste facility in New Bedford.

Newton, a well-to-do Boston suburb with 85,000 residents, generates nearly the same amount of trash as Worcester, a gritty municipality in the heart of the state with more than twice as many residents. On a per capita basis, Worcester residents generated 323 pounds of trash in 2012, compared to Newton’s 576. Worcester residents aren’t more environmentally conscious than those in Newton, but they are more conscious of trash — or at least its cost. Worcester residents pay $1.50 for each bag of trash they put out at the curb, while Newton residents, like those in Lynn under its new rules, are allowed to fill a 64-gallon cart each week. The difference may not sound like much, but the small bag fee is enough to change the mindset of most homeowners, turning them into big-time recyclers.

“Solid waste, like water and sewer, should be based on usage,” says Robert Moylan, who ran the Public Works Department in Worcester in 1993, when the city’s pay-as-you-throw program was launched. At the time, the city was facing a financial crisis and Moylan was trying to choose between cutting services or increasing taxes. In the end, he chose pay-as-you-throw. The results were head-turning. The city’s trash shipments to the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant in Millbury dropped from 45,000 tons a year to 22,500.

There are all sorts of pay-as-you-throw approaches. Some communities require residents to purchase special bags. Others use bag stickers. There is even an approach that utilizes debit cards. Some programs generate money for the city or town; others are revenue neutral. The goal is to put a dollar value on trash, giving residents an incentive to put out less and save the municipality on disposal costs.

Nearly a third of the state’s cities and towns charge their residents a bag fee. Their average trash output is 432 pounds per person. For the state’s other cities and towns, the average is 670 pounds per person. Natick shifted to pay-as-you-throw in the middle of 2003. Its trash tonnage over time has dropped from 9,800 tons a year to 5,923 tons, and its savings on disposal have totaled $3.1 million over the last 11 years. Sandwich made its move to pay-as-you-throw in the middle of 2011 and has seen its trash tonnage drop 48 percent, generating disposal savings of $425,000.


“I would not say the situation is of crisis proportions,” says David Cash, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under former governor Deval Patrick.

Fall River moved to pay-as-you-throw last year, and trash output went from an average of 816 pounds per person to an estimated 450 pound. Nevertheless, voters in Fall River recalled the mayor, in part because he pushed through a pay-as-you-throw program.

Moylan, the former Worcester official, acknowledges the political risks in moving to a bag fee, but he says the program works and can work in any community. “What they’re doing now is wasteful,” Moylan says of communities without bag fees, “but they’ve been doing it so long that they don’t realize how wasteful it is.”

Moylan could be talking about Boston, a city that generates an average of 674 pounds of trash per person. Some of the city’s trash goes to a waste-to-energy facility in Saugus. The rest goes to a transfer station in Lynn, where it is typically trucked to another incinerator or out of state.

Boston officials are trying to bring the trash volume down by promoting recycling through a number of innovative programs. All recycling materials in Boston are taken to a facility in Charlestown owned by Kti Recycling of New England. City officials say the city used to receive some money back for its recyclables, but currently is paying Kti $2 a ton to take them because the value of paper, plastics, and glass is so depressed.

Michael Dennehy, the interim commissioner of public works in Boston, currently lives in Milton, which has a pay-as-you-throw program that charges $3 for stickers. He doesn’t have a problem with the Milton program — “there’s not much we can’t recycle in my house,” says the father of five — but he nevertheless opposes moving Boston to a pay-as-you-throw system.

Dennehy, like all of his predecessors, believes a pay-as-you-throw program would never work in Boston, where renters make up two-thirds of the population. His biggest concern is that pay as you throw would lead to illegal dumping by people seeking to avoid a trash fee. “It would take an army of code enforcement officers to police that,” he says.

Dennehy’s concerns about dumping and cleanliness are typical of officials in communities that don’t assess bag fees, but communities that do assess the fees say the concerns are unwarranted. “These questions have all been answered,” says Bill Fiore, assistant to the commissioner of public works in Worcester, a regular stop for any community researching bag fees.

Lisauskas of WasteZero, which advises municipalities on pay-as-you-throw programs, says the available evidence indicates dumping is a problem that can be managed. “It’s something people are concerned about when they are considering a pay-as-you-throw program, but it doesn’t turn out to be a problem,” he says.


George Bachrach, the president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, is searching for common ground with the supermarket and beverage industries. Bachrach and his fellow environmentalists got their heads handed to them in November, when voters defeated a ballot measure to expand the reach of the bottle deposit law by a margin of nearly 3-1.

Environmentalists had argued the existing bottle deposit law works, and expanding it to most noncarbonated beverage containers would reduce litter and improve recycling. The beverage industry countered that it made no sense to operate two recycling systems, one for beverage containers and one for everything else. The beverage industry, backed by a $7 million spending advantage, prevailed at the ballot box, and now Bachrach is reaching out to his long-time opponents, trying to find common ground. “I’m not interested in fighting old fights,” he says.

A doll is buried amidst the trash at the New Bedford landfill.

A doll is buried amidst the trash at the New Bedford landfill.

No one is tipping their hand yet, but reading between the lines, it seems as if the fight over the bottle deposit law is not going to go away, and common ground will be difficult to find. Chris Flynn, the president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents the state’s supermarket chains, says voters made a clear statement in November that they do not want two approaches on recycling, one for containers and one for everything else.

“We should be looking at a more comprehensive approach,” Flynn says. He favors legislation that would do away with the bottle deposit law entirely and replace it with a 1-cent fee on every container, which would provide the revenue to move recycling efforts into high gear. Think of it as a grand bargain: More money for recycling efforts in return for scrapping the bottle deposit law.

“It’s fair to say that there’s a group of us who feel that’s the direction we should head,” he says. “There’s no need for a bifurcated system.”

Bachrach is not in favor of doing away with the bottle deposit law unless a proven alternative is in place and working. He says the bottle deposit law has been successful in recycling 80 percent of the covered containers, while the recycling rate for those containers not covered is about 24 percent. If a comprehensive recycling system can be developed that matches the 80 percent figure, Bachrach says then, and only then, would he consider getting rid of the bottle deposit law.

MassPIRG’s Domenitz, the bottle deposit law’s biggest supporter, says a comprehensive approach to the state’s trash problem should include the bottle deposit law along with a host of other measures, including enforcement of the waste bans, organics recycling, and pay as you throw. “The big picture is almost always made up of a 100 different things,” she says. “There is no silver bullet here.”

Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton, who has served as Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, says he wants to hold hearings statewide this year on trash, which he calls a “ticking time bomb” for municipalities across the state. With landfills closing, no new incinerators being built, and the cost of trash exports rising, Pacheco says the state needs to deal with its waste problem for both environmental and economic reasons.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Pacheco favors legislation that would set trash performance standards for municipalities, similar in some respects to standards for education, affordable housing, and other state priorities. His bill would require every municipality to reach an average of 600 pounds of trash per capita per year quickly and then ratchet that number down over five years to 450 pounds per capita. The numbers could be a challenge for some communities, but the average pay-as-you-throw municipality is already below the five-year target.

The senator is cautious about how his proposed standards would be enforced. His bill leaves that up to the same Department of Environmental Protection that has had difficulty enforcing the state’s waste bans. Hitting cities and towns where it hurts, by tying some part of state aid to compliance with trash-reducing benchmarks, would be one way of getting their attention, but would be politically difficult to push through the Legislature. A weaker enforcement regime that’s more politically palatable, however, might do little to alter the unsustainable trash-tossing track the state is on. Either way, Pacheco says, it’s time to address the state’s trash system. “The more you find out about it,” he says, “the more you say what a mess the system is.”