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Downtown View: Buried Under Cardboard

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It’s Christmas week. For many, it is hectic, so you might not read this column until Christmas Day is over and you’re dealing with boxes, the wrapping paper that can’t be saved, and the instructions that came with the Lego sets the kids have already assembled.

So don’t you think it is a good time to talk about recycling?

Good news here. Since last year, Boston’s Public Works Department has overseen an eight percent increase in recycling in its “single stream tonnage”—the stuff that is picked up at your front door, according to Matthew Mayrl, chief of staff in the Public Works Department. So we’re now sending about a fifth of our throw-aways to recycling facilities instead of dumping them in a landfill. And we’re saving money doing it.

The bad news: That figure is pathetic. Look at San Francisco, which recycles 80 percent of its trash. Wait a minute, said Mayrl. San Francisco includes in its recycling count things that Boston doesn’t, such as construction leftovers. So when we compare the two cities, we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Nevertheless, Boston’s recycle rate is embarrassing, especially for the city that ranks as the smartest in North America, according to Fast Company magazine. Even Jacksonville, Florida, a city with probably a low IQ vis-a-vis other cities in North America—sorry, Jacksonville—has managed to achieve a 30 percent rate of recycling.

We’ve been trying. Mayrl said his department has distributed free see-through plastic bags to show residents the proper way to recycle if they have no space for the big plastic bins. They’ve installed 200 public recycling bins on sidewalks alongside the regular trash bins, and will eventually put out 200 more. The public schools now have recycling programs. All those things are good.

But this week shows how empty those efforts are. Tons of recyclable matter will go out in the trash, just because few downtown residents have room to store all that stuff. This week, especially, shows how inadequate one recycle pickup day is in downtown Boston.

You know how it goes. You have a chicken bone. It goes in the trash, which, we hope, you don’t put out until the morning of trash pickup because you know how much the rats like chicken bones. The plastic container the chicken came in gets rinsed and thrown into the recycle bin. The whole operation takes a second or two.

All of recycling is like that. It takes the same amount of time to recycle as it does to throw something in the trash.

But here’s the rub. If you are recycling effectively, you soon have almost no trash, but you’ll have piles of recycling. Frustrated residents living in small spaces just throw the recyclables out on trash days.

Ignoring this situation is the city. The trash trucks reliably growl through Beacon Hill and the North End three times a week. In the Back Bay, it is twice a week. In Charlestown, it’s only one day a week. But in all these neighborhoods the recycle truck comes only once a week.

The Back Bay enjoys some relief from this problem since that neighborhood has alleys, offering many buildings space to store those large recycle bins. West Enders don’t have to think about storing trash or recycling since their buildings do it for them.

But in the North End and on Beacon Hill especially it’s a challenge to patiently await the recycling truck on the one day it drives by. On a weekend when you have house guests or in a week like Christmas with its wrapping paper and cardboard, throwaways could take up more room in your home than you do.

One solution being floated by neighborhood associations is to reduce trash collection days in the North End and on Beacon Hill to two days and increase recycle days to two, costing the city no more than the pickups do now. But some residents fear their fish bones will smell if they have to wait a day longer to get them out of the house. And maybe they will.

We’re never going to find out if people can adapt to this kind of a schedule, however, unless we try it. A city as smart as Boston should be able to figure out how to run a six-month test of increased recycling and decreased trash pickup. Will it work? We’ll know.

San Francisco has policies that make recycling more likely. It charges to pick up garbage. It will suspend garbage pickup on your property if you don’t recycle properly. It has programs that re-use concrete and paint and turn food waste from restaurants into compost. Boston cannot apply all of San Francisco’s solutions, but it could adopt some of them.

If this city doesn’t get better at recycling, we might wake up next Christmas and find that wrapping paper and cardboard are still taking up more room than we are. And the lowest blow will have been that San Francisco, not Boston, will have been named the smartest city in North America.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.

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Leave a comment on this post:

me says:

wonderful article. more recycling would absolutely result in less trash on the streets. i am an avid recycler and at least 85% of my waste is recycled. i only take out “trash” once every couple of weeks. as for the food scraps that can’t go down the garbage disposal, i find throwing them in a bag in the freezer is easy solution until my next trash day. i am sure some will find this gross, but have you seen our streets lately?

Kara says:

Great article Karen. We absolutely need 2 days of recycling pick up and I love the 2 and 2 idea.

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