South Hadley works to fix low residential recycling rate
Leo Gaouette empties recyclables at South Hadley's Recycling Center Wednesday. The town has recently added repositories for styrofoam and rigid plastics in an effort to improve the area recycling rates.
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A swarm of blackbirds comes to investigate a newly laid pile of garbage atop the South Hadley landfill on Wednesday.
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Since August, at least 158 dump trucks full of trash have been turned away from the South Hadley landfill for containing “banned” materials.
The offense? They can be recycled.
These “failed” loads are a sign of improvement. South Hadley is working to turn around its low residential recycling rate. In 2010, the most recent year for which information is available from the state Department of Environmental Protection, about 24 percent of everything South Hadley residents threw away in the trash was recycled — a rate 10 percentage points or more below state and national averages.
Although South Hadley has one of the lowest recycling rates among area towns reporting data to the DEP — Granby, with a 21 percent rate, recycled even less — many western Massachusetts towns facing landfill closings and high refuse fees are attempting to improve their recycling numbers and keep unnecessary waste out of dumps.
Even recycling juggernauts Northampton and Southampton are looking to bolster their already enviable stats. And while state officials tout convenient collection methods to encourage recycling, such as single-stream, curb-side pickup, Northampton and Southampton officials say the key to keeping recyclables out of the waste stream is education.
There are, however, factors outside of proponents’ control that influence how much people recycle. These include the economy, costs put on households and even natural disasters.
“We’re constantly trying to raise people’s awareness about recycling,” said Karen Bouquillon, director of waste management in Northampton, where the recycling rate is 64 percent. “We’re always trying to find new ways to reach out and educate people.”
South Hadley’s drive
Pushed in part by concerned residents, in August South Hadley’s landfill hired a new manager and added a second inspector to analyze truck loads of trash for materials barred from entering Massachusetts landfills by the state’s waste ban.
The list of materials banned has grown since the ban was issued in 1990. Materials include paper, glass, plastic bottles, mattresses, batteries, tires and TVs, for example. Failure to comply with the ban can lead to fines and denial of operating permits by the DEP.
Before changes made this summer, the landfill monitor spotted significantly fewer failed loads — only three from January to August — an indication that a lack of oversight may have led to recyclables being frequently tossed into the landfill contrary to waste-handling law. The South Hadley landfill, managed by Advanced Disposal, formerly known as Interstate Waste Management, is now conducting more inspections than what is required by the state, according to the DEP, the agency charged with landfill and recycling oversight.
“Waste ban materials may be included in loads, which is why waste ban inspections are required,” Catherine Skiba, a regional DEP spokeswoman, said in an email to the Gazette. “MassDEP encourages the increased inspections and diligence, resulting in the banned materials (being blocked) from entering the landfill.”
Attempts to determine why South Hadley’s inspection changed were not successful. After making initial contact, landfill manager Chris Spaulding stopped responding to requests for an interview.
Inspections alone won’t increase recycling in South Hadley, however. So in July 2011, the town switched to a pay-as-you-throw method for billing trash collection — a popular trash-disposal method for encouraging recycling. Through Pay-As-You-Throw, residents buy trash bags, at a cost of 50 cents or $1 depending on size, from the town. These bags are the only kind waste disposal collectors will pick up at curbs or accept at the landfill. While residents pay to throw away garbage, any items tossed into recycling bins are hauled away for free. PAYT costs the average Massachusetts household $52 to $78 per year, according to a 2011 evaluation of municipal recycling programs by Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“We’re really on a roll,” said Veronique “V” Blanchard Smith, director of solid waste management for South Hadley. “Trash is way down — by 17 percent — and our recycling has increased by 14 percent.”
With 64 percent of everything residents throw away recycled, Northampton has the best materials reuse rate in the area. The town with the second-highest rate is Southampton, which has a 62 percent residential recycling rate. Southampton has achieved even higher rates in years past, peaking at 81 percent — a Valley record — in 2008.
Meanwhile, the average residential recycling rate for 2010 in Massachusetts was 37 percent. In the U.S. the average recycling rate for 2010 was 34 percent.
“It’s really amazing since Northampton doesn’t have curbside recycling, which is the most convenient way to get the recycling rates up,” Bouquillon said. “We just have very conscientious residents.”
Northampton heavily promotes its recycling program with monthly events, notices that go out through the school system, a Facebook page, email blasts and the occasional mailer. The city is also forming an ad-hoc Zero Waste Committee, Bouquillon said. Anyone interested in joining should give her a call at 587-1059.
In Southampton, Highway Superintendent and Selectman Ed Cauley, said the town can attribute much of its high recycling rate to the priority that education is given. The attendants at the landfill instruct residents how to recycle, the town sets up recycling information booths at events and elementary school children take field trips to the recycling center in Springfield.
“We try to educate them young,” Cauley said.
The town’s landfill is also completely self-sustaining. No taxpayer money is used to operate the dump, meaning that its survival depends on bag fees, recouping money through recycling buy-backs and not getting fined by the DEP for improper trash disposal. “That might be another reason why we’re so aggressive with recycling,” said Cauley, who noted that the town has never had a failed load.
A variety of factors influence how much a community recycles, said Greg Cooper, the DEP’s director of consumer programs. One of the biggest is what pick-up services a town provides. “A change in the type of collection can be big,” he said.
Pay-as-you-throw programs and single-stream curb-side pickup (in which all recyclables can be thrown in one big bin instead of sorted into multiple containers) are the most effective in encouraging recycling, he said.
“Every community that has pay-as-you-throw — and there are over 130 of them — their recycling rates and diversion rates and the amount of waste they generate per capita is much, much better than communities without pay-as-you-throw,” Cooper said.
Granby is banking on the system to reduce waste, save the town money and eke out a little more time to keep the town landfill open.
In a 2011 letter to the community announcing the a pay-as-you-throw system, the Board of Selectmen sharply labeled the town’s practice of dumping 3,600 tons of trash per year in the landfill a “blatant abuse.” According to state rates and considering the town’s population, residents should be tossing 1,600 fewer tons per year, selectmen said. Members also decried the amount of “white goods” such as refrigerators, stoves, propane tanks and mattresses dumped at the landfill as “outrageous.” Residents must now pay a fee to throw white goods away.
The hope is that by targeting people’s wallets, Granby will be able to achieve the 20 to 35 percent waste reduction seen in other communities that have instituted pay-as-you-throw, according to the town’s website.
Some influences are beyond the control of waste haulers and recycling advocates. The economy also plays a role in how much recycling people do.
When money is tight, people buy less, thus reducing the amount of total trash created. Natural and man-made disasters can also impact recycling rates. When a call goes out to the public for used clothes and furnishings to help disaster victims, less of that stuff goes into the dump, Cooper said.