ON A BRILLIANT DAY in June, I stood on a catwalk inside a dark, cavernous building, looking down at a mountain of garbage. Actually, it was recycling — newspapers, pickle jars, and, wait, was that a red plastic sled? A skid steer was shoveling crumbling chunks of the mountain onto a conveyor belt, which pulled the goods inside.
If you live in or near Boston, there’s a fairly good chance your recycling comes here, to Casella in Charlestown. The biggest material recovery facility in the state, it sits just north of Bunker Hill Community College, hard against the Interstate 93 northbound lanes, and trucks drop about 750 tons of household- and business-generated recycling here every day. I’d driven by the place a hundred times on my way to the White Mountains and never noticed it.
Standing on the catwalk, I felt oddly as if I were in the White Mountains. Or rather a weird, postmodern version of them. Twenty feet below, a river of cardboard flowed by on one conveyor belt. To my right, squashed milk jugs tumbled off another belt into a bin. On my left, a stream of yogurt containers and plastic salad trays bumped by. My ears filled with the whooshing roar of the place, which surprisingly didn’t smell like garbage. It was like a hyper-industrial hiking trail surrounded by babbling brooks of diaper boxes and beer cans.
I had come to this mountain to solve a mystery: why Boston has such a dismal recycling record. The city’s “diversion rate,” industryspeak for the percentage of waste that is recycled or composted, is low, about 30 percent, compared with a national average of 34 percent. Comparably populated cities fare both better and worse: Baltimore is at 27 percent, Seattle, 55 percent. And among bigger cities, nobody comes close to San Francisco, at an impressive 80 percent. Cities calculate recycling rates in different ways, so, admittedly, these numbers are a bit squishy, but it’s clear that Boston is middling while San Francisco is shining. That city’s leaders are aiming to achieve “zero waste” by 2020, an idea more philosophical than practical, but still.
“Boston is where San Francisco was twenty years ago,” says Amy Perlmutter, a Cambridge-based environmental consultant and national expert in waste management who led San Francisco’s recycling program in the 1980s. “It’s frustrating to see how Massachusetts has stalled.”
It’s not entirely fair to compare Boston and San Francisco. Both cities have challenging street plans and educated, densely packed populations. But Boston has a lower median household income ($49,000 to San Francisco’s $70,000), fewer people, and a narrower revenue base, relying heavily on property taxes. But budgets aside, many officials and activists in Boston see San Francisco as the gold standard.
“Why is San Francisco a national leader and Boston at the tail end?” asks Lynne Pledger, the solid waste director for Clean Water Action Massachusetts. “It is a matter of political will.”
To be sure, Boston is getting greener. Bike lanes and Hubway docks are springing up like wildflowers, the city recently launched a sustainability initiative called Greenovate Boston, and Mayor Tom Menino has established efforts to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent and plant 100,000 trees here by 2020. Boston now recycles waste in all its public schools and is putting recycling bins into public parks.
The state, too, seems energized. In May, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection released an ambitious 10-year Solid Waste Master Plan, which calls for raising the state’s diversion rate to 64 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2050. State legislators interested in keeping plastics out of rapidly filling landfills are discussing an expanded bottle bill and a ban on some bags. And in June 2014, the state’s commercial food-waste ban, the first in the country, will go into effect. Any facility generating more than a ton of food waste a week — universities, hospitals, hotels, some high schools — will have to compost it, rather than dump it as garbage.
Change is afoot. But can Boston catch up with San Francisco or even Seattle? Maybe.
ROB DEROSA, Boston’s superintendent of waste reduction, may be the only man in the city who weighs his family’s recycling — every week, holding the bag, on the bathroom scale. “Just to check the trends,” he says sheepishly, suddenly realizing how geeky this seems. “It’s about 12 pounds a week. If we have a lot of company over the weekend, it gets up to 24 pounds.”
To drive with DeRosa through the South End is to see the city through garbage-colored glasses. Instead of leafy parks and immaculate brownstones, you’re faced with a warren of apartment buildings and narrow alleys conspiring against proper waste collection. Continued...