In 2011, the city of Boston commissioned a study on pay-as-you-throw. The study, finished in 2012, found that pay-as-you-throw would give Boston a 20 to 30 percent reduction in waste and a 10 to 20 percent increase in recycling, with a huge cost savings. Despite these advantages, the city shelved the idea. Matt Mayrl, Boston’s chief of staff for public works, says the mayor was concerned about imposing new costs on families during tough economic times. Refuse collection in Boston has traditionally been a public service, paid for by property taxes. In San Francisco, citizens have paid for collection since 1932, so pay-as-you-throw saved a lot of people money. In Boston, people would suddenly have to pay for something that’s always been free — at least, it’s always seemed free.
DeRosa, Boston’s superintendent of waste reduction, also notes the difficulty of enforcement. “If we go to an apartment complex and there’s a bunch of bags out there, some of which are paid for and some of which are not, what’s your recourse?” he asks. “We are also responsible for keeping the streets clean, so we can’t just leave it there.”
Advocates for pay-as-you-throw have little patience for these arguments, noting that Massachusetts municipalities of all sizes and income levels, from West Tisbury to Worcester, manage. “People who recycle love it because it’s only fair,” says Clean Water Action’s Pledger. “We’re all paying. So why not pay just for what you generate?”
REMEMBER THAT GUY from the beginning of the story, Neal Klinman, kindergarten teacher, father of three? One reason his family tosses out only two small bags of garbage each week is their kitchen compost, collected in two huge Marshmallow Fluff tubs that Klinman brought home from school.
Food scraps make up 20.6 percent of the waste stream in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Currently, the vast majority of those scraps either sit in a landfill with other garbage or wind up in one of the state’s seven waste-to-energy plants, where they are burned to generate electricity.
Klinman’s wife, Deborah Bennett, is frustrated that Boston doesn’t offer curbside compost collection, like San Francisco and soon New York City. The problem here is that there’s nowhere to put it. One thing San Francisco has that we don’t: huge tracts of nearby accessible land, where giant piles of compost are hauled to decay. Boston currently sends yard waste and Christmas trees to a small composting site, and a few nearby farms take commercial food waste, but there isn’t enough local capacity to handle all the banana peels in the city.
That is going to have to change, however, when the commercial food-waste ban goes into effect in summer 2014. One possible destination — for some of it, anyway — is the Deer Island Water Treatment Plant, near Logan Airport.
Inside the facility’s 12 giant egg-shaped digesters, thickened sludge from sewers all over metro Boston ferments for 20 days at 95 degrees, constantly stirred by giant corkscrews. Bacteria gobble the sludge and produce methane, which is used to help power the facility. The plant pipes the treated water 9 miles offshore and sells the solid byproduct to be made into fertilizer.
Food scraps ground up in household garbage disposers already end up at Deer Island, but the facility is not at capacity. Currently, the plant produces about 25 percent of its own power, but with 350 additional tons of food scraps mixed into the sludge every day, and some additional upgrades, it could generate about 50 percent.
In 2014, Deer Island will begin a pilot program, accepting 50 tons of food waste each day. The biggest hurdle is how to get it there. The plant sits on a spit of land jutting into Boston Harbor, at the end of a narrow road through Winthrop. Most likely, the food waste will be ground into a slurry onshore, then shipped to Deer Island by barge. “There’s a lot of infrastructure issues,” says Frederick Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which operates the facility. “But food waste in those digesters could be liquid gold for us.”
City and state officials expect that the food-waste ban will spur the growth of a composting infrastructure, which will facilitate curbside composting. The city of Cambridge, which already collects compost at more than half of its public schools, one senior center, and three drop-off locations, will begin a curbside pilot program in April 2014, and Boston is watching closely. Cambridge will give 800 households along one collection route a year’s supply of biodegradable bags, a kitchen scrap bucket, a curbside bin with a locking lid, and weekly pickup. If citizens play ball and Cambridge can reliably and cost-effectively gather 2 tons of compostable food scraps a week, the program could spread citywide, and also be a model for Boston.Continued...