Experts say lack of initiatives keep recycling rates down

By Rahul Raghuvanshi


When 60-year-old Dorchester resident Josephina Luna began recycling 15 years ago, hers was the only home on the street with a box full of recyclables waiting for the pickup truck.

Unlike today, the pickup truck would show up “once in five months,” she recalled. “I had a room full of recyclables.”

Undeterred, Luna launched her own campaign to educate her neighbors about recycling. “Few months later everybody was recycling,” she said.

While Boston has come a long way since Luna began her awareness campaign, she believes the city is crawling on its path to achieving zero waste. “I don’t think the city takes it seriously,” she said.

MSW Composition
Massachusetts’s MSW composition in 2010. Source: 2010-2020 MSW Masterplan by DEP.









The activist emphasizes the need to educate people and the implementation of stronger laws rather than a switch in recycling modes. “Single stream should be one step in recycling not the entire recycling process,” she said. “That does not guarantee successful recycling.”

All single-stream problems mostly come from lack of consumer education, said Mike Crowell, plant manager from Casella Waste Systems in Charlestown. “Consumers think they can throw in anything they think is recyclable,” he said. “We take tin or aluminum cans, but we get frying pans and oven racks!”

Unlike San Francisco and New York City, which have stepped up their reduce-reuse-recycle campaign by enforcing laws that fine residents for not recycling, Boston has no laws in place that fine individual homeowners. Currently existing laws only fine residents for improper disposal of trash and buildings that do not provide residents access to recycling.

A shift in educational initiatives and regulations in neighboring cities like Cambridge and Salem have helped boost recycling rates. For instance, in July, the city of Salem approved ordinances that fine residents who do not put recyclables on curb at least once a week.

“The set-out rates have increased tremendously,” said Jeff Cohen, Salem’s Mandatory Recycling Enforcement Coordinator.  The number of homes participating have gone up between 10 and 20 percent since last year, he said.

Before the launch of the program, Cohen said, he personally spoke to thousands of Salem residents educating them about the need to recycle and now sometimes drives ahead of the recycling hauling trucks to ensure all households are recycling.

Plastics dumped in a “paper only” bin at Boylston Station in Boston.

Though the city has come up with new programs like curbside composting, a lack of educational initiatives seem to be creating confusion among recyclers who are used to one bin for recycling at home and are subject to two bins at workplace, said Eliana Blaine, account manager at Save That Stuff, a garbage sorting company in Charlestown.

Jeff Coyne, executive director at Earthworm Recyclers in Somerville noted the same concern. “When they come to work, they bring in their single-stream habits and tend to ignore our signs,” he said. “It’s getting worse! We have over 750 customers (businesses) in Greater Boston and they are always pulling their hair out. They (office workers) seem to not read the signs.”

Blaine foresees the solid waste master plan enforced by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as helping raise awareness about recycling and waste diversion and eventually resolving some of the contamination problems facing recycling companies.

“We have dedicated inspectors that conduct inspection, monitor trash and take action at solid waste facilities,” said John Fischer, branch chief of Commercial Waste Reduction & Waste Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. A total of 101 enforcements, which include 98 notices of non-compliance and three waste ban penalties, were issued to businesses and organizations between January 2013 and January 2014, Fischer said.

Some experts see the need for Boston to develop well-rounded policies that focus on an array of issues relating to the city’s recycling system and not just address some of the concerns.

“This isn’t just an environmental issue. Whatever policy is placed should be a comprehensive solution ” said Alex Papali, Clean Water Action’s coordinator of Boston Recycling Coalition (BRC), an organization which represents a coalition of groups like Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA), that together working towards achieving zero waste.

At a zero waste proposal presentation by BRC at Boston’s City Hall in March 2014, Brian Swett, chief of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, said these issues are very important and they don’t always get the attention they deserve. He assured they would be included in a soon-to-be released report by Walsh’s environment transition team.

State’s MSW processing breakdown for 2012-13. Source:

The coalition is advocating that the policymaking process shouldn’t just be limited to the confines of city hall, but should involve a broad discussion with workers, waste industry, community residents in different neighborhoods and large and small industries, Papali said.

As the city dwells on coming up with a more efficient and conclusive recycling model for achieving zero waste, most experts agree that the city needs to develop such policies quickly if it is going to achieve its goal of  a 75 percent diversion rate by 2030.

About rahul_raghuvanshi 3 Articles
Rahul Raghuvanshi is a multimedia journalist with a passion for story telling. He currently works as the Web Editor for  WERS 88.9FM and has previously interned with the Boston Herald as a video journalist. He holds a bachelor's degree in electronics and communication engineering. His passion to communicate technology and issues of public interests led him to pursue his master's degree in journalism at Emerson College.