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Remodeled mall is pushed to recycle its tons of waste

NATICK - Shop Natick Collection's just-opened wing of high-end boutiques, and you may be offered a free promotional bottle of spring water to help keep you hydrated between spending sprees.

But once you drink it, look around - you won't find a place to recycle the bottle.

The state's newest luxury mall - 1 million square feet of sumptuous retail space, featuring Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, and the state's first Nordstrom department store - recycles very little of the tons of cardboard, plastic, and paper received and unpacked weekly by its 170 stores.

The needless waste prompted the town of Natick - bolstered by letters of support from the towns of Way land, Sherborn, and Framingham - to apply last week for a technical assistance grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection to assist in creating a recycling program at the Collection. The mall is not eligible for the town's residential curbside program.

Bob Bois, the town's conservation agent, acknowledged that the idea of funneling taxpayer money, even for a program as beneficial as recycling, to a group of luxury stores selling such items as $60,000 Tourneau watches and $58,000 diamond-and-tanzanite pendants sounds incongruous.

But town officials don't believe they're in a position to insist that the Collection establish a comprehensive recycling program on its own dime. They would rather first try the "gentle" approach with mall owners General Growth Properties of Chicago, Bois said.

"We think people there want to do the right thing, and we want to collaborate with them on doing the right thing," said Bois. The grant, if awarded to the town, would provide 80 hours of a DEP staff recycling coordinator's time to help the mall get a program established.

"We have a business and neighborhood relationship with General Growth, and as consumers who shop at the mall, we have a responsibility to help recycling efforts, too. It's a learning process for everyone, and special technical assistance is needed," Bois said.

Recycling efforts are "minimal" at the Collection, in part, because it just opened, said mall spokeswoman Kerri A. Landry, who said specific figures on exactly how much material is recycled in Natick weren't available.

But mall officials expect to spend more time addressing the issue after the grand opening festivities die down in a few months. "We are in the process of doing more behind the scenes," she said.

The Collection is by no means alone. Several other shopping malls in the western suburbs have failed to jump on the conservation bandwagon, despite being open for decades.

The Atrium Mall in Newton, the Mall at Chestnut Hill, and Solomon Pond Mall do not have "noteworthy" recycling programs, said Ronda McLeod, New England director of marketing for Simon Properties, which operates those malls. Those shopping centers have recycling bins for cardboard, McLeod said, but not for bottles, cans, or paper. Officials of the Solomon Pond Mall have said in previous interviews that its 110-store operation generates 6,000 pounds of trash weekly.

The Wrentham Premium Outlets in Wrentham, owned by New York-based Chelsea Properties, won't comment on its recycling programs, said Landry, whose PR firm also represents that shopping center.

Several local environmentalists said they were unaware of any serious efforts ongoing at any of those shopping centers. Lack of awareness and cost are the main reasons businesses - especially small ones - don't recycle.

Recycling cardboard in bulk generally pays for itself, bringing in $10-20 per ton. Mixed paper is almost cost-neutral to recycle, but private haulers generally charge $40 per ton to take away and recycle cans and bottles.

DEP has awarded assistance grants to communities helping their local business districts recycle; several large supermarket chains; and at least one mall - the Silver City Galleria in Taunton - which now has a successful program, said Greg Cooper, DEP's director of consumer programs.

Over the next six weeks, Cooper's office will review about 150 applications - including Natick's - and award about $1 million in grants.

Natick's request, for about two weeks of a DEP consultant's time, could yield increased community benefit in the form of a progressive recycling system - and that expense would be entirely borne by the mall.

"All we're doing is sending someone to the mall to help them understand what the disposal rules are, where the options are, and how to get the services and vendors they need to do it," said Cooper. "We see a lot of potential in commercial recycling, but the biggest challenge is lack of awareness and knowledge of how to do it."

Ignorance won't be an excuse much longer. Eco-aware shoppers, especially young ones, seem to be pushing the envelope.

Boston University, Boston College, Harvard University, and Bentley College all recently upgraded their recycling programs, largely at the insistence of student advocates, said Adam Mitchell of the recycling company Save That Stuff Inc.

The CambridgeSide Galleria in Cambridge - a mall that attracts young urban shoppers - recently hired Mitchell's company to come up with an internal can-bottle-paper recycling plan for mall stores.

The focus on mall recycling is getting out to the suburbs more slowly. But it is coming, said Michele Davis of Green Decade Coalition of Newton, the city's largest nonprofit advocate environmental group.

The push in Newton has been largely focused on recycling in its municipal buildings and schools, and the city hasn't had the time or resources to police the malls - so far.

"We would like to see more recycling there, certainly," said Davis, who said she carries plastic bottles out of the malls during her infrequent shopping trips, rather than toss them in a regular trash bin.

But a public/private partnership may also be on the horizon in Newton.

Green Decade and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce are both lobbying for a new trash contract for the city in 2008 that would allow local businesses - possibly including the Atrium and Chestnut Hill malls - to buy into municipal recycle pickup.

The business community knows it needs to do better, said chamber director Tom O'Rourke.

"They care quite a bit, but the problem is that the issue is confusing, and there are a lot of questions about how to do it, what needs to be done, and how much it will cost," he said. "Businesses need to get out in front of this issue, and recognize that it's good business to let their customers know they are doing the right thing."

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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