Ongoing efforts to make progress on recycling lean in part on private sector partnerships, according to speakers at last week's MassRecycle conference. Pandemic effects were also an underlying theme.
Panels at the conference for stakeholders across the recycling industry in Massachusetts highlighted waste reduction efforts the state has been pursuing in recent years across three main categories: organics, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws and reuse initiatives. But as agencies and municipalities face unprecedented burdens, setbacks and priority shifts, stakeholders are adjusting to new realities about how best to divide responsibility between the public and private sectors moving forward.
Big picture focus
In recent years, state and local officials have invested significant resources into devising master plans with long and short-term goals for waste reduction. How these plans have progressed in various contexts was a common thread across several panels.
The state's 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan is still underway, according to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) Commissioner Martin Suuberg. “I had hoped that we would be done and have the 2030 plan out,” he said. “We took a little more time, in part because of COVID and in part because we got feedback from important constituencies.” The plan includes a proposed ban on textile and mattress disposal, and expanding a previously established ban on food waste to generators of a half-ton or more per week.
Municipal updates focused on short-term accomplishments and long-term obstacles. Commenting on Boston’s Zero Waste Plan, which aims for a 80% diversion rate by 2035 and 90% by 2050, sanitation chief Chris Osgood highlighted public education campaigns, which included translating the zero waste guide into 11 languages. He noted some progress on organics collection, such as doubling the city’s compost drop-off collection sites, and partnerships to promote subscription-based food waste collection. Osgood also referenced a 2019 request for information that sought to explore broader options for organics recycling.
Osgood reiterated the city’s intention to target textile recycling by increasing drop-off sites and piloting a textile pick-up program, though the city delayed the launch of this pilot to an unspecified date due to pandemic factors.
Michael Orr, director of recycling programs in Cambridge, discussed the city’s own Zero Waste Master Plan in a panel on reuse and reduction initiatives. Logistical considerations were identified as a key challenge.
“We’re just so cramped for space and when we think about reuse events or having sites in the city for reuse… we get reminded that we’re one of the most dense cities in the United States," said Orr, saying a 50-square foot recycling center opened in the Department of Public Works has its limitations. “Maybe that isn’t the best avenue for us to go. So we have been thinking about different avenues that people use to promote reuse.”
Those other avenues include private sharing economy technologies, like NextDoor.com, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Orr lauded the ability of these technologies to operate independently, as they facilitate exchanges with fewer interactions and involve less coordination — ideal qualities during a pandemic — and add no costs to the city budget.
“What if we helped people build programs around reuse outwardly rather than having it be a city program that we’re controlling?” he asked.
Higher ed case study
As policy discussions continue at the state and larger city level, other efforts are continuing within the private and nonprofit sectors. Some are supported by state funds, like the nonprofit Wachusett EarthDay that resells used goods for seven towns and utilizes MassDEP’s microgrant program to fund some of its partnerships.
In other cases, well-endowed private institutions like Harvard University can afford to take matters into their own hands. Rob Gogan, manager of recycling and waste for the university, recalled the logistical hurdle he faces each year when students place unwanted items and furniture on the curbside as they move out.
“So much stuff gets discarded on the curb. It’s about 200 moving truckloads that we have to get the same day,” he said. “You get a call from the guy you just picked up from, and it’s already filled again.”
Gogan created a program in partnership with Habitat for Humanity in which volunteers clean and collect discarded items to be resold at a "Stuff Sale" that raises money for the organization. They also receive free room and board over the summer. The sale is so popular that on the first day it often takes in about $5,000 an hour. Since 1998, these sales have raised $1 million for Habitat for Humanity.
The university has also taken more systematic steps to reduce waste long term such as more intentional facility design.
“Every time they renovate a building, they put in an addition to a lot more outlets for all the laptops, there are much better appliances to take care of students’ dietary needs. And also lamps, mirrors," said Gogan. "So now there’s less stuff for me to pick up on move-out day."
Stakeholders also provided updates into various EPR-related legislation, which many view as a necessary precondition to successful implementation of upcoming bans listed in the 2030 Master Plan.
“Let’s have that EPR system funded, ready to go… Putting the bans in place and trying to get EPR after, you’re going to see logistical bottlenecks and challenges,” said Phil Goddard, manager of facility compliance and technical development in the town of Bourne.
Pending legislation being watched in the state includes H.796, which would develop EPR infrastructure for paint. According to Tania Keeble, co-owner of Recolor Paints – an organization that has been collecting surplus paint from municipalities, residences and commercial organizations in Massachusetts since 2009 – the legislation would be a huge opportunity. Keeble's organization currently manages program costs, but this law would create a fee structure paid for by producers. The paint bill has remained on the agenda in a legislative session extended because of the pandemic, but Keeble said “time will tell whether it passes at the end.”
End markets would still be a question if it passes, and Keeble feels municipal and state contractors have a role to play there because prior efforts have not always been successful.
“We’ve been on a state contract [in Wellfleet] for two or three years and not sold one gallon of paint,” Keeble said. “So that would be my next project, to figure out why that’s not working... It seems to be a perfect fit on the other side of this.”
Another bill, S.2388, sponsored by State Sen. Edward Kennedy, would directly support the proposed ban on disposal of mattresses by funding an investigation and study by a special commission on mattress recycling to precede a large-scale EPR program. The end goal would be similar to what Rhode Island has implemented, where manufacturers created a statewide recycling program paid for by adding a nominal fee (around $16) to the cost of each mattress sold. But the pandemic has also thrown this into uncertainty.
“We’re still hopeful,” said Kennedy, “but not as hopeful as we could be if there was no pandemic."