Local, state officials examine recycling crisis

  • Kirstie L. Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation, speaks to a group of state legislatures, during a regional meeting on recycling in Holyoke on Monday.   STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, asks a question at the regional meeting on recycling in Holyoke on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/10/2020 10:56:19 PM

HOLYOKE — Local and state officials grabbed doughnuts and coffee and gave cheerful handshakes Tuesday as they crowded together into a stark, white conference room.

But beneath the collegial atmosphere was a shared understanding: they were there to discuss an environmental and financial problem.

As recycling markets across the country face crisis amid upheaval in the world’s recycling systems, communities are facing new challenges and experiencing soaring recycling costs. The meeting at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, organized by Mayor Alex Morse and state Rep. Aaron Vega, brought together mayors, state lawmakers and others to discuss a new contract that will see communities pay for recycling instead of receiving money for it.

“What you’re facing in western Massachusetts here is the same thing we’re facing throughout the whole region,” said Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation. “The costs have gone up — instead of making a little bit of money, you’re being charged $95, $145 a ton.”

Those fees Pecci mentioned are what it will now cost “dual-stream” communities like Holyoke — where plastic, glass and cans are separated from paper — and “single-stream” communities to recycle, respectively.

That’s because of a new contract between the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and WM Recycle America, which operates the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility.

Pecci and her colleague John Hite walked attendees through the scope of the problem, how things got to this point and what solutions exist.

Over the years, Pecci said many communities in the state have gone to a single-stream recycling system. And those streams have increasingly captured items that either are not recyclable or for which there is no recycling market, such as coffee-cup lids.

“What happened is we degraded the quality of the material,” Pecci said. “The cleaner and more sorted something is, the more value it is going to have.”

Previously, China would accept the country’s recyclables, despite how contaminated they were. But China recently enacted stricter recycling rules, and as a result, recycling revenue plummeted. Communities are now seeing the consequences.

The Conservation Law Foundation, Pecci explained, views redesigning materials, reducing consumption of non-recyclables and reusing items like bottles as better alternatives to recycling or composting, not to mention “unacceptable” waste management strategies like incineration.

Pecci also said it is important to correctly define the word “recycle,” which she said should be separated from “downcycling” — when plastics are turned into a rug that will eventually end up in a landfill, for example. Recycling, she said, is the “circular economy” in which items are separated out to be cleaned and turned into an identical item.

“Cardboard into cardboard, that’s recycling,” she said. As it turns out, many items people throw into their recycling bins shouldn’t be in there: Styrofoam, disposable coffee lids, plastic-lined bags and much more. What gets recycled is really only glass, metal, No. 1 and No. 2 plastic, as well as No. 5 plastic.

The real answer is to use far less plastic, which is polluting at every stage, Pecci said, from the extraction of fossil fuels to create plastics to the litter and microplastic pollution that result. The large waste management companies that control recycling in most communities don’t have any incentive to make things better, she added.

“If the recycling is very contaminated, they can just burn or bury it at their facilities,” she said. In the end, they make money off hauling and disposal, and that money increases the more trash there is to deal with. “They don’t really care how good the recycling system is — they care about making money on the waste system.”

Hite, joking that he was there to give solutions after Pecci laid out the doom and gloom, said the single most effective recycling program in effect is the state’s “bottle bill,” which returns a 5-cent deposit on beer, mineral water and soda bottles and cans. Some 60 percent of those items are truly recycled, he said, and it is free to municipalities and taxpayers.

In Michigan, he added, the state upped the return value from 5 cents to 10 cents and now sees over 90 percent recycling rates on all containers covered under that law.

“It’s a great system,” he said, adding that there’s no reason why more items couldn’t be covered under Massachusetts’ law. “We could add anything we want to this system.”

A statewide referendum in 2014 would have expanded the bill to other non-carbonated beverages but was defeated in a landslide after the American Beverage Association spent millions in a campaign against it. For the state lawmakers in the room, Hite noted that there is currently a bill in the Legislature, S.2481, that adds liquor and wine bottles — which are heavy to haul — to the bottle bill.

Another significant fix Hite mentioned was “extended producer responsibility,” which would see producers foot the bill for recycling the products they create. Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said that is a solution he has been “screaming in the wind about” for a decade.

“That’s really the paradigm shift that we ultimately need,” Narkewicz said.

Hite said a bill that would create producer responsibility, H.750, is still alive on Beacon Hill.

During the meeting, Pecci also mentioned some other solutions municipalities can think about. A big one was creating systems for composting, given that organic materials make up around one third of all waste in the state.

“Composting yard waste is a much more sustainable system,” she said. “It turns out that when we compost, we create a huge local economic benefit as well. We’re creating local businesses, not only the people who are actually composting but then the folks who are using it for landscaping.”

Following the meeting, Morse said it was important for local leaders to understand the bigger picture. He said that often people are made to feel bad about their own personal consumption of disposal products instead of taking on those who actually make those products — a perspective he referred to as the “straw theory.”

“We should be placing that blame and burden on the producers of straws,” he said.

Many local legislators attended the meeting.

“I’m totally interested to hear some of the solutions they offered,” Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, said. She said she would support legislation to add alcohol, wine and nip bottles to the state’s bottle bill.

Sen. Jo Comerford said that “net zero” should be the “clarion call” for the Legislature. “And in this, frankly, I think the state has to step up,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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