Downtown View: Recycle City

We can get pretty depressed at the precarious state of the environment and the steps public officials are not taking to remedy the problem. Even more depressing are the climate change deniers, the clean coal boosters, the natural gas pipeline aficionados and the people who lack concern about fossil fuels damaging our air and water. Not even several toxic spills into rivers and the oceans have been able to move Congress to face facts and the future.

So it is nice to know that Boston has a tiny bit of good news on the environmental front. The city has increased its recycle rate. It is transforming the sticks in your garden into compost. The city is a wee bit cleaner.

Hey. Let’s take what we can get.

Downtown Boston’s recycling rate has increased by almost 12 percent since last July, Boston Public Works Commissioner Michael Dennehy reported. Several factors went into this good news. The city has placed recycle receptacles beside most trash bins along such major streets as Boylston, Beacon, Newbury and Cambridge, so that items formerly thrown in the trash are now being recycled.

In all the downtown neighborhoods except Charlestown, the city now collects trash only two days a week. But it has increased its collection of recyclables to two days a week also, up from one day a year ago. Some residents, whose neighborhoods formerly experienced trash pickup three days a week, complained bitterly that neighbors living in small apartments couldn’t store their trash for the extra days between pickups, and the streets would be even trashier than before.

But that hasn’t happened. Reducing the number of hours trash sits on the sidewalk each week has made the neighborhoods cleaner. “I was pleasantly surprised,” said Paula Della Russo of the North End. “There is less litter in the streets, and I haven’t seen as many rodents.”

More recycling has also saved the city money. It costs $74 a ton to get rid of trash, but only $5 a ton to deposit the recyclables at the Casella recycling plant in Charlestown, said Dennehy. So every ton of recyclable material the trucks pick up saves the city’s taxpayers $69.

When the market for plastics was better, the city was actually paid for such material.

The material that does not go into the trash contributes to the city’s diversion rate. That amount has been growing too. In April of this year in the whole city it was up 27 percent over April, 2014. The material diverted is not only recyclables. It also includes yard waste, which the city this year picks up every two weeks in the spring, once a month in the summer, and every week from the last week in October through the first week in December. Dennehy said if people put out their yard waste on the wrong day the trash haulers will not put it in the trash, but instead will leave it on the sidewalk until the yard waste truck comes on the right day for pickup.

Yard waste goes to City Soil, which for about two years has composted, screened and sifted the organic material (including Christmas trees) at its site along the American Legion Highway and delivered the compost to Boston’s community gardens. Residents can pick up compost there for their own gardens in City Soil’s retail shop.

We still have trash, however. The downtown trash goes to the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy power plant in Saugus. It can burn 1,500 tons per day and delivers electricity to 30,000 households. Trash from the outer neighborhoods—Hyde Park, JP, West Roxbury, for example—gets trucked to the SEMASS facility in Rochester, Massachusetts just south of I-495 near Route 28. SEMASS burns the trash at a rate of 3,000 tons per day, also producing energy. This facility charges the city $60 per ton of trash.

This year the city added a fifth hazardous waste drop-off day.

There are still problems that need to be solved. Although converting waste to energy sounds like a good idea, the plants have their own problems, so much so that the state has imposed a moratorium on building new ones, said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. He said the only effective way to deal with trash is to drastically reduce it, and increase recycling. Some cities and towns have tried such financial incentives as charging for trash or allowing residents a limited amount of trash after which they would be charged. Boston has not gone that route yet.

In January and February, the recycle rate was considerably down. Apparently deep snow affects residents’ tendency to recycle. The outlying neighborhoods’ recycling rate is not as good as the downtown’s, and that’s another place for improvement. Although in April 2015 more than one ton of disposables out of five was being recycled or repurposed, Dennehy would like to see it improve to one out of four or 25 percent.

So it is little by little. That’s better than nothing.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times 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. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

2 Replies to “Downtown View: Recycle City

  1. charge money for water and vitamin drink bottles–they are all over the streets and parks, as we do not have enough recepticles

  2. Ms. Taylor:

    Thank you for this edifying article on trash & recycling.

    One area you do not address is the heaviest material in our trash–food waste. Those who compost know that it is the best free soil amendment you can get–but it does require space for a compost heap.

    Those who lack that can do something almost as good for the environment–they can put it through their in-sink food grinder, or disposal.

    Because Boston is in the MWRA system, that food then goes through the gravity sewers to Deer Island, where it is separated and digested in those big eggs out the end of the island. The end products are fertilizer (Bay State Fertilizer, water (which is cleaned before it goes to the bay), and methane gas, which powers the plant.

    Some caveats:

    • If you don’t want a sewer backup, then fats, oils and grease (FOG)—and any bones or skin—should not be part of what you send down the drain. That burns nicely at the incinerator. In fact, I’ve cut down on my hand-washing time by wiping greasy pans and pots out with paper napkins (I use the extras always included in take-out meals), and tossing the greasy paper in the trash.

    • Eggshells and coffee grounds don’t digest. The MWRA has to screen them out, and then they end up in a landfill.

    • Those plastic produce stickers: They don’t compost and they don’t digest. Furthermore, they aren’t all screened out in the treatment process—they are one of the few things found at the Deer Island outfall. Best to remove them before grinding, or they may wind up in the fish.

    • And don’t do this outside of home. If you run a restaurant or cafeteria, you need an organic waste hauler—big kitchens produce more solids than a home kitchen and are often the cause of sewer blockages.

    I hope you consider adding this information to a future column to further reduce Boston’s waste!


    Andreae Downs
    Executive Director
    Wastewater Advisory Committee to the MWRA

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