Boston has officially announced its intentions to become the next major "zero waste" city in the country by issuing a new request for proposals to kick off a multi-month planning process.
The city released the details of this $150,000 RFP at a City Hall meeting on Friday. Once selected this summer, the winning consultant will work with a proposed Zero Waste Advisory Committee to figure out next steps. Over an estimated nine month process they will assess the city's current system, perform a cost-benefit analysis of various policies, engage with residents and stakeholders, and release a report with recommendations on how to move forward.
City officials repeatedly made it clear that no policies have been selected — and no goals have been set for 2030, 2040, or any other round-numbered year in the future — but all options are on the table. Based on the common definition of "zero waste," 90% diversion or higher, Boston has a lot of work ahead.
According to the latest information, Boston generates an estimated 240,000 tons of residential waste per year. Refuse currently goes to regional waste-to-energy facilities operated by Wheelabrator and Covanta for an average tip fee of $65 per ton. About 18% of residential waste is diverted for recycling to a single-stream Casella facility in the city at an average profit of $2 per ton. The city also composts its own yard waste and offers special drop-off events for textiles, electronics, household hazardous waste and other items. Those operations bring the overall residential diversion rate to 21%. No figures are currently tracked for commercial waste.
All of this costs Boston an estimated $37 million per year — $22 million of that dedicated to collection — and the city sees potential opportunities for big savings by changing that system.
"There is a very clear financial benefit to every taxpayer in the city of Boston, every person in the city of Boston, for finding ways that we can actually increase our diversion rate," said Chris Osgood, the city's chief of streets, transportation and sanitation, during the meeting.
Residential waste is currently collected by local haulers Sunrise Scavenger and Capitol Waste Services. Those contracts, along with the disposal and recycling contracts, are all up for renewal in 2019.
While commercial waste is currently collected in an open market system multiple people at the meeting mentioned the new franchise system in Los Angeles as an intriguing model. When asked after the meeting whether Boston might pursue a similar system to regulate the commercial sector, as New York is in the process of doing, the city's chief of energy, environment and open space didn't rule it out.
"We want to look at everything that could potentially be effective," Austin Blackmon told Waste Dive. "We want to make sure that we're looking at the waste that we can influence. Obviously it's not within our immediate purview, but we want to see if there are things that we can do to help in that space as well."
Like in Los Angeles and New York, labor and environmental advocates aim to play a large role in ensuring that whatever plan the city publishes will create as many "green" jobs as possible for local residents. Members of Zero Waste Boston — a collective of state and local groups formerly known as the Boston Recycling Coalition — were present at the City Hall meeting and have been actively engaged in the process leading to the new RFP.
In 2014, they released a report calling on the city to hit 50% diversion by 2020 and "zero waste" by 2040. Following that, they were also involved in organizing a series of "zero waste" summits in Boston last year. Supported by a $24,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, this process brought together municipal officials from around the region to hear from "zero waste" consultants and representatives from other cities that already had their own plans. Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco were all featured as models.
The process of pulling together the RFP has taken longer than expected since then, but Zero Waste Boston's representatives were very positive about seeing new action from the city.
"Today's announcement is a culmination of years of work and this is a true city and community partnership. This is a great first step," said Alex Papali, an organizer with Clean Water Action, during the meeting.
Despite frequent reports about the potential job creation from improved recycling, reuse and repair activities it can sometimes be hard to conceptualize the idea. Though advocates in Boston already have a prime example that they see as a model for how a "zero waste" plan could help the local economy. CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling and Organics), a worker-owned organics collection cooperative founded in the neighborhood of Dorchester, has helped divert 2 million pounds of material since 2014. They're currently pursuing the idea of community-scale anaerobic digesters and continuously expanding their base of commercial customers.
These ambitious goals could put Boston at the forefront of "zero waste" in New England and potentially make it a national leader as well. Though as other cities with similar plans have learned the coming months and years will be challenging.
New York has a 2030 "zero waste" goal, but recently recognized the need to sign a new 20-year landfill contract. Austin has struggled to keep up with benchmarks toward its goal of "zero waste" by 2040 and recently put a pause on new contract decisions to reassess. San Francisco, widely considered a national leader despite some skepticism of the way it calculates diversion rates, has admitted it may not hit the goal of "zero waste" by 2020.
None of this means Boston's plan can't be done or couldn't have benefits. The city's population is projected to hit or surpass peak levels in coming decades, which will run counter to state waste reduction efforts that environmental groups already view as inadequate. The city also has a larger goal of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2050, which increased waste diversion could help achieve. The need for more advanced recycling infrastructure has been recognized at the national level as well.
Though this process can easily become complicated when it comes to negotiating new contracts, building new regional organics processing capacity and trying to reclaim more value from recyclables that are ultimately dictated by a global commodity market. Boston will soon learn all of this and more as it joins other East Coast cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. on the path toward "zero waste."