Part 1 - Recycling Q&A Recap: How does Belmont measure up?

Sustainable Belmont hosted a Q&A with Mary Beth Calnan and Wellington PTO Members, Anna Churchill and Doug Koplow to discuss recycling issues in town, including the great efforts underway at the elementary schools.

Participants were invited to submit questions and share ideas during the evening and in advance of the discussion. Many questions prompted by the idea of improving recycling rates were asked along the lines of: how about single-stream recycling? weekly collection? pay as you throw? switch trash with recycling frequency? incentive programs? stronger [any] enforcement?

Addressing each in turn, Mary Beth Calnan and Doug Koplow (recent chair of the Solid Waste / Recycling Committee and Wellington parent) spoke to the issues. Single-stream is not the utopia we might expect it to be: 1) it costs a fair amount to invest in the particular toters, 2) at the time of Belmont’s contract negotiation it wasn’t cost effective – largely due to the newness of single-stream and the small size of Belmont relative to other markets – and 3) our divided streams, particularly the separated paper has a good value on the recycling market which could be to our advantage in a new contract negotiation. Weekly collection, another idea, would also fall in the realm of increasing costs. Certainly it would increase recycling rates, but whether it would offset the additional costs of the additional weeks would be the subject of analysis for the next Solid Waste/Recycling Committee, when the contract comes up for renewal.

As for positive incentive programs, Calnan reported a program in Everett that went awry by rewarding based on weight, such that bowling balls and bricks were tossed regularly to increase the rewards. Punitive programs are not favored, i.e., Belmont has the authority to issue tickets to non-compliant residents as neighboring communities do, but chooses not to. More indirect methods, such as barrel limits or pay-as-you-throw, are less punitive and a possibility, but such programs would have to be vetted via our democratic process.

Still, how do we increase the rates of recycling and reduce our costs for waste removal. First, know that both waste and recycled materials have a removal cost in the form of a hauling charge. But, waste (the incineration-bound kind) has an ADDED cost – a tipping fee of $70 / ton. That sounds really cheap, but in 2013 Belmont disposed of roughly 7,500 tons of trash. That translates into $525,000 in tipping charges.

In the same year, we diverted roughly 2,200 tons of recycled materials. That translates into $154,000 of avoided tipping fees due to recycling. Our complete diversion rate is about 40% – that is yard waste, recycling and other materials that never hit the highway to incineration. If we consider 40% of our total waste as an avoided tipping cost, we saved about $271,600 in 2013. That sounds great, but where else does 40% equal success, especially when it’s estimated that 80-90% of all our waste can be recovered in the form of recycling or composting? We could double $$.

Clearly, it is in our financial interest to increase recycling compliance and reduce consumption overall. Yet, whatever policy is in place, we are still left with education, education, and more education. That is the hard truth as material-recovery technology changes and product designs change. We are fortunate now to have Calan, who is helping to create continuity and educate everyone along the way. As she puts it, people are funny about their trash, but why wouldn’t you do it? Recycle – it just makes sense!

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Martin March 11, 2014 at 07:00 PM
I think regular waste could be collected only every other week just as recycling. This would avoid the temptation to put recycling in with regular trash.
Rich Snow March 12, 2014 at 10:13 PM
I know for my household, biweekly trash pickup would be a bad idea. Raccoons get into the trash for one thing. But the recycling being every other week is also challenging in terms of sheer volume. Storage space is lacking, and that reduces our incentive to recycle. Could there be other creative ways to engage people in recycling without increasing the net cost? If we are not capturing a significant percentage of the recyclables, then there is still an opportunity to recover additional costs in the form of tipping fees. And Belmont is not monolithic. Precinct 5 is much more dense than Belmont Hill. It would make more sense to have weekly recycling in the multi-family parts of town (ok that is a political knife-edge, but what if the costs bear this out?) - because multifamily homes I would guess have a greater density of put-outs than single family homes. Certainly the trucks drive a shorter distance from building to building... So what if we analyze the costs by precinct? Does it make sense in some parts of town?
Sustainable Belmont March 13, 2014 at 11:55 PM
Rich, those are interesting ideas that would be looked at with the next contract evaluation, which I believe ends in 2 years. It would be interesting to see the data by precinct on waste removal - perhaps a friendly town competition would prove beneficial. It has been done between towns in Massachusetts. And yes, while food waste is not currently collected the concern is, as you said, around rodents and odor by switching that waste to every other week. We had many attendees - one from a 2-person household that produced only 1 small (approx 5 gal) bag a week of waste that could not be recycled or composted. Another household of 4 used 1 standard trash barrel for recyclable containers and 1 for papers - filling each 2 week period and 1/2 a barrel per week for other waste. If storage is a problem for your household, you may consider labeling a larger existing barrel and/or looking at your inputs - perhaps there is some reductions that can be made before it comes in. Regarding creative ways to engage people in recycling, several were tossed around. The town's current approach is education. Of course new ideas and support are welcome.


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