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Susan Waite’s passion for trash can be contagious

  • Susan Waite, the Recycling Coordinator in Amherst, with the compost recycling at the Amherst transfer station.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Susan Waite, the Recycling Coordinator in Amherst, with the compost recycling at the Amherst transfer station.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Susan Waite, the Recycling Coordinator in Amherst, with the compost recycling at the Amherst transfer station.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Susan Waite, the Recycling Coordinator in Amherst, with the compost recycling at the Amherst transfer station.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Susan Waite, the Recycling Coordinator in Amherst, with the compost recycling at the Amherst transfer station.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Susan Waite, the Recycling Coordinator in Amherst, with the compost recycling at the Amherst transfer station.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

What Susan Waite wants is for people to care about trash.

Maybe not as much as she does. She’s Amherst’s recycling coordinator and she can talk about the subject all day if you want her to (not many people do, she admits). But enough to reduce how much they dump.

“I had a stack of composting stuff this high,” she says, miming a two-foot stack with her hands as she sat in the meeting room at the Department of Public Works building recently, “but I didn’t want to scare the bejesus out of you.”

The email that got me down to the DPW had a message line I couldn’t resist: “Compost excitement.”

She laughs when I mention that.

“I make jokes about Oscar the Grouch. It’s not that I love trash, but I just really think that people need to start thinking about their waste footprint.” She smiles. And then starts pulling articles and pamphlets and graphs and charts from the stack of stuff she brought to show me.

She’s got information about the commercial food waste ban by the Department of Environmental Protection that’s imminent in Massachusetts, and the DEP’s search for sites to place anaerobic digesters (machines that recycle organic waste without oxygen and then convert the methane to heating fuel) — University of Massachusetts land in Hadley among them.

There’s discouraging news about the composting program that’s been going on at the Amherst Transfer Station since the spring — not much interest — but she brightens when she points out that the composting efforts at the town’s elementary schools have gone well. She has information about a program to separate food waste from the trash in New York City and laws in Seattle, San Francisco, Minnesota and Connecticut about the same thing. Vermont, she says, is into the second phase of requiring businesses that generate 1 and 2 tons of compostable garbage a week to separate it from their trash.

“There are a lot of cool things going on,” she says. “Composting is a really hot topic.”

Compostable waste, in addition to fruit and veggie scraps and yard waste, includes chicken bones, meat and fat, greasy pizza boxes and soiled paper plates and napkins — stuff you can’t dump in the backyard heap. It is a big portion of the municipal solid waste that is produced in the state, actually in the world, Waite says. “It’s really one of the last major chunks of waste that we can address fairly easily.”

Landfill space in running out in Massachusetts and the fees waste haulers (known as tipping fees) pay to dump in landfills are the highest in the country — more than $100 per ton — so she wants to get people’s attention.

That has been hard in Amherst. The effort to get people to put their compostable waste into special paid-for bags and discard them in a designated red bin at the transfer station has not worked out as she hoped, though Cameron Weimar of Amend Organics in Amherst, who is running the program, says he’s pleased to start small. Weimar, who is just getting his composting business off the ground, offered to sell the bags and pick up the waste for free each week and bring it to farms in Amherst and Belchertown, where it gets mixed with agricultural waste and composted. “It’s a win-win situation for the town,” Waite says. Except that only 600 bags have been used since May.

“It has been disappointing,” she says. “But we’re figuring out our mistakes.” One, she thinks, is that the bags are too big. At $20 for 14, people want to get their money’s worth out of each one. But the compostable sacks are 13-gallon size and no one wants smelly food sitting around the house until the bag gets full, she speculates. Weimar, though, says the next available size is three gallons, which he thinks is too small. Feedback from users should help, he says.

The other problem is that only the 1,939 people in Amherst who bought transfer station passes at $100 a pop this year to dump their trash there can participate. Other Amherst residents buy curbside pickup from private haulers. On top of that, Waite says, there is no economic incentive, just the desire to do the right thing. Food waste is heavy, but it doesn’t take up much room in the standard garbage bags, so people aren’t saving money. Those who use private haulers are charged by volume, not weight, so at this point it wouldn’t save them money to pull out the compostables, she says. Weimar is happy to keep going for the foreseeable future anyway.

“We’re a really good fit with the people who come to the transfer station,” he says.

On the bright side, Waite says, commercial enterprises do pay by weight, so big grocery stores like Whole Foods, Big Y and Atkins Farms Country Market are separating theirs. That means they’ll be ahead of the curve when state regulations kick in next July requiring it.

She’s ecstatic about that commercial food waste ban, but then there is the question of what to do with all of that garbage once it’s picked up. Right now it is easier for farmers than others to get permits to run commercial compost operations on their land, but there aren’t many. In this area, there are Martin’s Farm in Greenfield and Bear Path Farm in Whately. There is also farmland in Belchertown being used. But once the state regulation goes into effect next summer, there will need to be more.

That’s where anaerobic digesters come in. The DEP is seeking sites for these machines, which are big vessels that process the material without oxygen, capturing the methane and other gasses produced to convert into fuel. Liquid that is left over can be used as fertilizer — all very efficient.

The DEP is eyeing UMass land in Hadley near the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant to place one and have met with Amherst, Hadley and university officials to discuss it. A consultant is doing a feasibility study on it for the state and should have a report for local officials by the end of September, according to DEP spokesman Ed Coletta. A private company, AGreen Energy, is installing an anaerobic digester at Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley.

Money woes

But while Waite is focused on these efforts and continuing the Amherst schools’ program, which has the children clearing off their food trays into bins that generate 2-yard Dumpsters full of compostable material a week, she has a bigger problem on her mind. That is finding a way to keep the transfer station running while covering other waste-related expenses in town and keeping her 25-hour a week job.

Because Amherst doesn’t have a landfill — it closed 10 years ago — it doesn’t have what Waite calls a “cash cow” which brings in money from private waste haulers. Instead, the town’s operations have to be self-sustaining.

Right now that means relying on money generated by the transfer station sticker sales, which are down by 40 this year. The fiscal 2014 budget for Amherst’s solid waste services is $536,000. There is $30,000 in cash reserves. That’s it. So Waite, DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring and others have been trying to come up with ways to cut expenses or raise more money.

“This is probably one of the biggest and most misunderstood things by the average Amherst taxpayer,” Waite says. Tax dollars do not fund these services. The DPW held a public hearing a year or so ago to get ideas, but only 10 people showed up.

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it is,” Waite says.

The most dramatic solution, she says, would be closing the transfer station, or charging for services like hazardous waste pickup. Money-making proposals have not gotten off the ground. Mooring, she says, has looked into installing a methane-capturing device for energy production on the closed landfill on Belchertown Road, having a cell tower erected there and installing solar panels.

“In my opinion, Guilford has been very creative in trying to come up with additional revenue,” she says.

But time is running out. “The cushion has eroded over the years,” she says. “We can’t do it this way for much longer.”

Waite says she loves her job. At 49, she’s held the part-time post for seven years. She has a master’s degree in corporate training and has worked in the insurance industry and in human resources. But the job she describes as her “first beloved” job, was one she got as a junior high school student, vacuuming in a resale clothing store — the Buffalo Exchange. She worked for that company through college at the University of Arizona. And while a college student, she and a friend started a cans and bottles pickup recycling service on Saturdays, donating the proceeds to the food bank. “Recycling has been in my blood from an early age,” she says.

She came to Massachusetts with her husband, Todd Tripp, who took a job in the University of Massachusetts astronomy department about 10 years ago. She stayed at home for a few years with their daughter, Isabelle, who is now a high school sophomore, but really wanted to get back to work. She took the DPW job as a temporary fill-in and has embraced it wholeheartedly. She’s now also doing similar work on a temporary basis in Northampton.

“I feel like I’m making a difference in the world, however small,” she says as we wrap up the interview. “I’m a cancer survivor and it’s important to me to make an impact, so I’m trying to do what I can do.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.


Lee Bridegam: Urges others to compost food waste

Thursday, September 5, 2013

To the editor: Three cheers for our recycling cheerleader, Susan Waite, and her strong endorsement of Amend Organics. South Congregational Church has used Amend Organics for several church suppers and will use the blue bags again for our Oct. 5 Harvest Dinner. Taste of Amherst impressed many with the Amend Organics well-orchestrated recycling. I urge religious and secular organizations that …

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