Recycling makes more progress without trash metering

A look at recycling reports from Massachusetts communities provides no support for using trash metering in Brookline–so-called “pay as you throw.” It has not been a particularly helpful approach for largely urban, high-income communities. Instead, metered trash fees became common mostly in middle-income communities, far suburbs and rural areas.

A survey for calendar 2012 is the most recent available. It is far from complete. Of 352 cities and towns involved, 131 failed to report, and nine filed obviously faulty information–a compliance rate of only 60 percent. Many scofflaws are small towns, but scofflaws also include Amherst, Harvard, Hull, Medford, Nantucket, Norwood, Pittsfield, Salisbury, Springfield, Topsfield, Wakefield, Watertown, Wellesley, Winthrop and Worcester.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection calculates a so-called “recycling rate” that turns out to be misleading. It is supposed to be annual tonnage recycled, divided by annual tonnage collected. However, that metric has been badly distorted by including “electronic waste” and “yard waste” within the tonnages.

The problem with “electronic waste” is that a few communities housing businesses involved in electronics disposal report huge amounts: Ashland, Melrose, Milford, Revere and Saugus. The problem with “yard waste” is the great variation in community customs. Some communities don’t handle yard waste at all and report none. Others operate popular services with large composting pits and report enormous amounts.

A straightforward way to put communities on an even footing is to exclude “electronic waste” and “yard waste” in figuring rates. When we do that, real recycling rates of Massachusetts cities and towns reporting for 2012 averaged 23 percent. Brookline achieved 37 percent, and the town ranked 37th out of 212 reporting communities in the state. The more highly ranked communities usually have small populations or had only a small fraction of households using community-operated trash services.

A more representative comparison with Brookline can be found by looking at communities with large numbers of households using community-operated trash services. Of the 50 largest community services, according to the number of households served, Brookline ranked fourth in real recycling rate. Only Barnstable, Lexington and Cambridge were ahead.

A scan over communities with large numbers of participating households quickly shows that richer communities tended to achieve high recycling rates and poorer communities tended to achieve low ones. At the foot of the 50-community list were Lowell, Fall River and Lawrence–with rates of 13, 11 and 7 percent.

Trash metering–so-called “pay as you throw”–is often advertised by people who seem to be proselytizing or promoting their careers–such as the mayor of Gloucester, who was recently written up in the Boston Globe. Out in the wider world where most people live, trash metering has not become a popular topic.

Changes for Massachusetts communities in real recycling rates (not counting yard waste) show no evidence that trash metering works better than other ways to encourage recycling. Following are records of real recycling rates for the top five Massachusetts communities, among the 50 communities with the most households using community-operated trash services, plus the record for city of Gloucester:

Massachusetts Real rate Trash
community 2008 2012 metering
Barnstable 13% 52% no
Lexington 39% 42% no
Cambridge 28% 39% no
Brookline 31% 37% no
Newton 13% 37% no
Gloucester 21% 30% yes

All top-five communities substantially improved their real recycling rates. Barnstable and Newton far outperformed Gloucester, yet none of the top-five communities used trash metering. There are likely to be good opportunities for Brookline to continue improving its recycling rate. More outreach to neighborhood associations and school programs might help. It can be really irritating to be nagged by your neighbors or your children. Trash metering, on the other hand, looks like a distraction.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 11, 2014

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