Bales of crushed PET bottles at a recycling facility. Photo: wikipedia commons.

Zero Waste Amherst (ZWA), a group of Amherst residents hoping to influence solid waste policy and practice in Amherst, held its first meeting at the Jones Library on Sunday, January 12, 2020.  The meeting was organized by Amherst residents John Root, former chair of Amherst’s Recycling and Refuse Committee, Laura Macleod, an international environmental activist, bilingual translator and educator, and Town Councilor Darcy Dumont (District 5), who helped create, and currently sits on, Amherst’s Energy and Climate Action Committee.  About a dozen Amherst residents attended the meeting.

The meeting included a presentation by Root on the contribution of solid waste to greenhouse gases and the global climate emergency, and the role that zero waste policies can play in addressing those challenges. The presentation was followed by a lively discussion of what needs to be done to move Amherst toward  zero waste policy and practice, as well as actions that those in the room thought should be given the highest priority. These discussions were framed by an awareness of a burgeoning solid waste crisis that is outpacing solutions. Massachusetts environmental officials publish 10-year plans, complete with detailed trash reduction goals. By 2010, we were supposed to be burning or burying 2.1 million tons of trash per year. Instead, we burned or buried 4.7 million tons. 

The Situation in Amherst
The Town’s Refuse and Recycling Committee last met on December 1, 2018 and has been dormant since.  The Town’s previous Waste Reduction Coordinator, Mimi Kaplan, filed her final report to the town in  May of 2019, and left shortly thereafter when the grant funding the position expired.  The organizers of ZWA said they believe it is necessary to form a non-governmental group to insure that the Town’s solid waste challenges are addressed in a timely way and remain in the public eye, and to assist the town in addressing these challenges.

Amherst closed its own landfill in 2004. The last landfill in Western MA, located in Chicopee, closed in 2019.   (See also here). Amherst currently recycles about 50% of its solid waste but the collapse of overseas markets for recycled materials has made recycling more challenging and many haulers across the country are diverting their recyclables to landfills and incinerators. (See an up-to-date report on the status of recyclables in Western Massachusetts here).

This is currently not the situation in Amherst nor in Massachusetts as a whole because state law prohibits such diversions, but most recycling facilities that used to pay for recycled materials now charge haulers to drop them off. For example, Northampton, which used to receive about $8 per ton for recyclables at the regional Materials Recycling Facility (MRF, aka the “MURF”) in Springfield, will soon pay in the neighborhood of $95 per ton, with an apparent rebate system in place of up to $95 per ton should the MRF recover its costs though sales of recyclables. Communities are currently scrambling to figure out how to respond. 

Amherst currently has two trash haulers – Amherst Trucking and USA Waste & Recycling, although USA recently purchased the trash hauling component of Amherst Trucking and will soon become the exclusive hauler in Amherst.  Amherst Trucking requires the separation of cans and cardboard ,and takes its recyclables to the MRF.  USA, which allows customers to combine containers and papers (“single stream”), takes most of its recyclables to its own facility in Connecticut. Single-stream recycling tends to produce more contaminated materials and more materials end up as waste, rather than being recycled. USA claims that consumers prefer single stream because it is easier for them and hence yields a higher rate of participation and more diversion of materials from the waste stream.  

USA also offers compost pick-up for $11 for a large container.  Several municipalities throughout Connecticut, including Fairfield and Westchester Counties and the City of New Haven have adopted curbside composting. Across the county,  municipal compost programs are diverting tons of organic materials from landfills and turning them into useful compost and mulch. USA’s Connecticut  transfer station currently sells its paper and cardboard to Sonoco at commodity prices, which have declined quite a bit recently. 

USA has announced that they will discontinue their curbside composting service once they become the exclusive hauler for Amherst.  Amherst residents who purchase a transfer station sticker ($100 annually) will still be able to bring their compostable organic waste to the transfer station.

An Urgent Problem
According to the EPA, solid waste contributes up to 42% of our greenhouse gases (GHG) and represents the most promising opportunity for GHG reduction. 50% of current trash in the US is compostable and much of the remainder is recylable..  And American consumers currently rank last among OECD countries in terms of sustainable waste practices. (In 2013 Americans produced 725kg of solid waste annually per capita and all indications suggest that this figure has only increased since then).

Landfills produce “leachate,” a toxic fluid composed of pollutants like benzene, pesticides, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and more, which come from the compressed trash. Although landfills are technically supposed to keep garbage dry and are lined to prevent leachate from contaminating nearby soil and groundwater, landfill liners are likely to degrade, tear, or crack eventually, allowing the toxins to escape directly into the environment. Landfills are only guaranteed to last for 30 years. Trash burning incinerators emit lead, mercury, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide which are known causes of cancer and pulmonary and heart ailments, and contribute to GHG emissions.  Incinerator workers and people living near incinerators are at the highest risk of exposure to airborne contaminants.  

Energy generating incinerators require thousands of tons of trash a day. These quotas for garbage to keep the incinerators running undermine waste reduction efforts. Landfills and incinerators create environmental justice issues as solid waste disposal facilities are frequently located in or near poor communities.  Towns across the country are seeking alternatives to burying or burning.  The alternatives to producing more garbage is to “refuse, reuse, reduce, and recycle” – especially the first three. Overconsumption and industrial overuse of packaging are the prime culprits.

The Limitations of Recycling
The quality of recycling in the US is generally poor, according to Susan Waite,  Amherst resident and Waste Reduction Coordinator for Northampton. Amherst and Northampton have done relatively better than some neighboring communities in minimizing contamination even with single stream, which is the method preferred by big haulers, she said. Waite estimates contamination rates in Amherst are probably under 10% whereas some communities in Eastern Massachusetts have rates as high as 40%. Nonetheless, zero waste advocates argue that recycling, is hardly the solution to the solid waste dilemma.  

Zero Waste Solutions
An alternative approach to the waste disposal challenge is to waste less by embracing purposeful and creative materials management strategies.

Many communities in the US and Europe have begun to implement zero waste policies and strategies.  (See examples here and here and here.) 

At the meeting, Christina Platt offered the example of Berkley, California as a community that has embraced an aggressive and successful zero waste plan.  And Waite cited the “Refill not Landfill” campaign in Lebanon, NH and Northampton’s  “Northampton Reuse” campaigns as admirable examples.

Zero Waste is a holistic strategy which, according to the Zero Waste Alliance, aims “to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to  emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.” For the Alliance, zero waste means:

  • minimize wasting of resources 
  • end reliance on landfills, incinerators, and other waste facilities
  • minimize pollution
  • maximize employment opportunities
  • maximize local economic self reliance
  • create more sustainable interactions with our natural world
  • eliminate waste at the source

A zero waste approach is guided by a set of mandates often referred to as the “Eight R’s”. 

Reduce: Buy less; make do with what you have.

Reuse: If you don’t want it, someone else might.

Refuse: Don’t accept or purchase unnecessary or unsustainably produced goods.

Return: Require producers to take back what they sell. 

Repair: Fix and mend things rather than replacing them.

Refill: Bottles should be returned, washed and refilled.

Rot: Compost all inedible and nonrecyclable organics.

Recycle: Salvage materials (a last resort but still important).

Amherst’s Recycling and Refuse Management Committee produced a solid waste master plan in November, 2016, and while it was accepted for consideration by the Select Board, it was never formally adopted (see here for some history).

Amherst’s 2016 Zero Waste Master Plan  produced the following recommendations (see here for the complete plan). 

  • Update Board of Health (BOH) regulations, the Waste Hauler Agreement, and related Town bylaws to include single hauler, Pay As You Throw, organics ban, curbside organics pickup.
  • Enforce BOH regulations and Town bylaws
  • Plan and implement a Zero Waste education campaign targeting and actively involving all sectors of the community:  begin with focus on composting and enhanced recycling.  
  • Identify and implement cost-effective methods to increase composting opportunities for residents:  facilitate and incentivize home composting; establish composting facilities.
  • Identify and implement strategies for waste reduction at multi-family residences in Amherst:  provide guidance for engaging tenant participation and creating effective recycling plans.
  • Develop a downtown recycling plan in partnership with BID and the Chamber of Commerce:  
  • Increase public recycling accessibility:  pair recycling bins with refuse containers.
  • Create a billing approach for waste services provided to the school district that covers all costs and provides financial incentives to reduce waste.
  • Look into partnering with local farms – particularly re; composting solutions
  • Fund a full-time Waste Reduction Manager position after clarifying responsibilities and identifying priorities: 

Current Community Priorities
In discussing the five-year-old plan, people at the meeting  proposed focusing on the following issues:

  • Hauler reform, as noted above
  • Hire a full time solid waste coordinator
  • Ban organics from the waste stream  
  • Create public interest
  • Work in partnership with other communities*(e.g. toward hauler reform)
  • Substantial Public Education
  • Revisit and revise original Zero Waste master plan
  • Identify allies in and out of government and including the business community and work with them

Next Steps
The organizers expressed hopes of creating a broad-based coalition that will act on the priorities that were the subject of preliminary discussions at this meeting.  Root met recently with Town Manager Paul Bockelman who aid that it would be difficult to find funds in the budget to hire a waste reduction coordinator. Bockelman nonetheless thought that some of the items from the master plan, like curbside pickup of organics, could potentially be implemented. ZWA will need to consider how costs of new programs will be met. Northampton pays for its solid waste programs from its waste enterprise fund.  Amherst has a Solid Waste Enterpirse Fund (SWEF) which used to receive significant amounts of income from tipping fees paid at the landfill. Now that the landfill is capped, the SWEF is solely reliant on purchases of Transfer Station stickers.

Those interested in learning more or joining the work of ZWA should contact the organizers:

John Root:

Laura Macleod:

Darcy Dumont:

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  1. Great! Good, somebody’s gotta do something as government and business churn on much as before and time’s a wasting. Two points tho:

    1) I really think this has to be carried out with a regionally focused effort. Such is the system needed for comprehensive change (equipment, costs, economies of scale). Amherst stores (not under citizen’s control anyway) can’t be alone in refusing the huge amount of packaging (the Chem Industry group says 40% of the plastics made are designed to be discarded) that comes in (Refuse). There are models out there we can follow, we DO have the technology already and;

    2) we have to begin. Somewhere, even if small. The only thing we can control in this effort right now is our own town. We can ask our public to change. Town offices, schools (both already started), libraries, DPW, Housing Authority properties and offices, fire, police, etc. Doing so incrementally and thru Town policy can lead the way. There are many here to support, some lead the way. Like C-19 all must work toward solution. A few did not and we lost China as our handlers of record. They set a standard when the product was not up to grade, we could not use them anymore. Now a home grown solution stands ready, let’s support it. Example: why change to expensive electric school busses (& infrastructure) when more immediate less expensive methane (LPG?) is available, conversion cheep’n quick. A plan on savings for electric busses made, followed as longer term solution…
    Chad Fuller

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