What’s in a Waste Ban?
By Sean Sullivan
At the start of November last year, Massachusetts took a step to reduce waste and juice recycling.
The new measures ban the tossing of mattresses and textiles in the trash, and seek to shrink the volume of food waste produced by businesses and other organizations.
The strictures are a small salvo in the struggle between cost and convenience on one side of the scale, versus conservation and climate change on the other. With the new regulations, the state seeks to tip the balance a bit in favor of the latter. The guidelines are part of the growing (shrinking?) efforts of governments to divert waste away from landfills, foster an ethos of conservation.
In the endearingly-awful 2004 film “Envy,” a luckless inventor strikes it rich when he formulates an instant cure for a first-world problem that’s long plagued us - suburban dog feces. Once applied, this handy, compact spray causes the offending scat to vanish, seemingly into thin air. The product is called Vapoorize, and it takes the suburban dog-walking world by storm.
Spoiler alert. For those rare folks out there who haven’t seen the film but now will, Vapoorize turns out to be a sham. Unbeknownst to its users, the product doesn’t actually disappear dog waste, doesn’t even dissolve it. And the upshot is that the world suddenly finds itself ankle deep in - well, you know.
The episode is a funny and apt distillation of the world’s current mode of doing away with its waste. One deposits one’s trash every fortnight in the magic blue bags, and poof! Gone the next day.
Yet if you have nagging doubts about what devils lie in the details of that process, it’s a good bet you’re not alone. You feel a small weight on your shoulder, and discover a little angel sitting there, pondering what really happens to all that stuff when the recycling and trash trucks roll away.
One current version of real-world Vapoorize is fire. Natick’s trash is brought to an incinerator, where it is set ablaze and, poof! Most of that waste goes up in smoke. Those fires burn at about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, shrinking the solid stuff down to a fraction of its former self in terms of weight and volume.
The heat energy produced is in turn transformed into usable electricity, powering homes, towns and cities. A Massachusetts government web page classifies this energy as renewable. But air pollution is also a significant by-product of the process, as that solid slurry of consumer goods and trash vanishes up through smoke stacks.
Another largely-unconsidered consequence of this method of disposal is a cost of opportunity. Once those raw materials are torched, they’re gone. More minerals must be mined to replace them. More fossil fuels must be extracted to synthesize the stuff that’s so central to modernity.
Plastics permeate our lives. They’re the building blocks of our computers, constitute a considerable percentage of our cars. From paints to petrochemicals, packaging to playthings, they’re everywhere.
And one notable irony of ubiquity is invisibility. In plain sight and out of mind, to bend the phrase. When something is everywhere, it can fade into the background. Things like trees and water, and yes, plastics. We’ll miss them once they start getting scarce.
If our trash isn’t burned, it’s likely buried, as landfills are also a destination for items we don’t reuse or recycle.
The state’s new ban on textiles and mattresses is a sort downward push against the mounting piles of waste produced by more people purchasing more stuff, and all the packaging that comes along for the ride.
But what will the new ban mean for Natick residents? Not much, said Jillian Wilson-Martin, the town’s director of sustainability.
She likened the state’s new strictures to Massachusetts’ adoption of the bottle bill decades ago. Elegant in its simplicity and scope, the bill sought to tie together producers, sellers and consumers in a contract that would get bottles and cans out of alleys and waterways, and into the recycling stream.
And in terms of food waste and textile recycling, said Wilson-Martin, the town has been ahead of the curve for some time now.
“Natick has had programs in place for a number of years.”
These include efforts of Natick schools, where collection boxes are available to accept used clothing in good condition. The items must be washed, clean and dry. Such receptacles can also be found at the town’s recycling center.
Natick’s ongoing pink bag program is another tributary intended to divert textiles away from a turbulent stream that eventually ends in an ocean of muddled waste.
The free pink bags are provided through the town by Simple Recycling, an organization that collects and repurposes clothing and other small, household sundries. A list of these items can be found via the town’s website.
“The goal of the organizations,” said Wilson-Martin, “is to get the most value out of it.”
For items in good condition, that most often means reselling them. For textiles far past their prime, another life may await. Worn-out jeans for example, can be shredded and used to insulate homes and as stuffing for car seats.
Mattresses are another matter. The bulky items have long been a bane for municipalities to manage, taking up inordinate space in trucks and the landfills or incinerators that have traditionally been their final destination.
As 75 percent of the materials in mattresses are said to be recyclable, the new state ban seeks to usher more of them toward salvage. Many mattress retailers offer free removal of a used model when a new one is purchased, and many charitable organizations accept used mattresses in good condition.
In lieu of these cost-free options, Natick currently accepts mattresses as part of the town’s bulk pickup program. The service is run through the department of public works, and there’s a $35 fee attached.
Another target of the new Massachusetts measures is food waste, and concerns restaurants and establishments that offer the commodity. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection limited the weekly amount of food waste per location at one ton in 2014, and cut that cap in half in November. Any excess, as required by law, must be donated and/or diverted away from the rubbish bin. Such alternative streams may include charities and composting.
The 2014 state program is said to have tripled the amount of food waste turned away from trash bins annually, bringing that total to 300,000 tons per year. Millions of dollars in economic benefits have also been attributed to the policy change.
For Natick residents, curbside composting has already been an option for a few years. The town offers free bins for the service, and a discount for new participants. Sign-up is available via blackearthcompost.com, the organization that conducts the curbside pickups.
Wilson-Martin said about 1,200 residents currently participate in the composting program, which costs about $115 annually. If the number of participants reaches 1,500, the cost per household will drop to about $90 each year. A recent study estimated that food waste accounts for about 40 percent of Natick’s residential trash.
“People tell me it brings them a lot of joy” to compost, said Wilson-Martin.
“To make a difference, we all need to change our behavior. I get Amazon deliveries and drink coffee too. The more you buy, the more you’re going to throw away.”
That changing behavior, she added, includes smarter policies from governments distal and local, as well as more thoughtful visits to the store and our backyard recycling bins.
“We make it easy for residents to do the right thing.”