Back in 2007, Popular Science magazine analyzed American cities of more than 100,000 people and boldly ranked them. In its issue for February 2008, it published the names of the “winners,” the 50 cities with the highest “green” scores, in an article by Elizabeth Svoboda, entitled, “America’s 50 Greenest Cities.”
How the Rankings Work
“We used raw data from the US Census Bureau and the National Geographic Society’s Green Guide, which collected survey data and government statistics for American cities of over 100,000 people in more than 30 categories, including air quality, electricity use, and transportation habits” according to Svoboda. “We then compiled these statistics into four broad categories, each scored out of either 5 or 10 possible points. The sum of these four scores determines a city’s place in the rankings. Our categories were:
“Electricity (E; 10 points): Cities score points for drawing their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric power, as well as for offering incentives for residents to invest in their own power sources, like roof-mounted solar panels.
“Transportation (T; 10 points): High scores go to cities whose commuters take public transportation or carpool. Air quality also plays a role.
“Green Living (G; 5 points): Cities earn points for the number of buildings certified by the US Green Building Council, as well as for devoting area to green space, such as public parks and nature preserves.
“Recycling and Green Perspective (R; 5 points): This measures how comprehensive a city’s recycling program is (if the city collects old electronics, for example) and how important its citizens consider environmental issues.”
Not surprisingly, the Top Five was dominated by four West Coast cities, but the other Top Five city was the venerable city of Boston, which ranked third, less than 2% behind the winner, Portland OR. Even more surprising was the fact that Boston scored 4.9 points out of 5 in the category of Recycling and Green Perspective. That’s 98%.
Boston? 98%? This is the city whose residents in 2008 recycled only 14% of the trash they produced. However, on closer examination of the study, it seemed likely that the study team was impressed by Boston’s comprehensive plan that was about to pay significant dividends for the city’s recycling performance. That planning and progress can be seen from its infancy 20 years earlier. Prodded by its activist mayor, Thomas Menino, progress had been made toward viable recycling every year, as shown in the following “History of Recycling in Boston” posted on the city of Boston’s extensive Web site.
1987: Volunteers organize drop-offs in several neighborhoods where residents can recycle their newspapers and bottles.
1988: Boston enters into an agreement with the recycling volunteers to manage these monthly drop-offs.
1990: A recycling ordinance is passed, and a curbside collection program for 6,500 households in Jamaica Plain is piloted.
1992: Eight monthly drop-off recycling centers were operated throughout Boston.
1993: Citywide, weekly collection of newspapers begins.
1994: Weekly, citywide recycling collection is expanded to include bottles, cans, and two types of plastic containers.
1995: Citywide, weekly curbside collection of household recyclables to residents living in large apartment buildings begins. Citywide seasonal curbside collection of leaves and yardwaste begins.
1996: Nine new items are added to the curbside collection program, and three permanent surplus paint and used-motor-oil recycling centers are opened.
1997: A fourth surplus paint and used-motor-oil recycling center is opened.
1998: The city expands its household hazardous waste drop-off days from once per year to twice per year. STRIVE, the Boston School Department’s School-To-Career program offers recycling collection to all Boston Public Schools.
1999: The city begins curbside collection and recycling of cathode ray tubes, found in televisions and computer monitors.
2000: City recycling services are extended to the Boston Housing Authority’s developments.
2003: The city council passes the ordinance “Regarding Access to City Recycling Programs for Large Apartment Buildings,” which requires owners of large residential buildings provide access to recycling services for their residents.
Then, Boston began considering a conversion to single-stream recycling from its dual-stream system of curbside collection of recyclables, in which paper and plastics were separated by residents. “This became practical when the Boston’s recycling processor, Casella Waste Systems of Rutland, VT, informed the city that it would be utilizing its materials recovery system to do the separation of mixed recyclables,” recalls Susan Cascino, Boston’s recycling director. After a number of pilot programs in various parts of the city, the Boston Public Works Department made the decision to convert to single-stream collection of recyclables which in turn led to major changes in the city’s overall collection of both recyclables and trash.
Boston’s Unique Challenges
“It was a significant challenge for Boston,” says Robert W. DeRosa, superintendent of the Waste Reduction Department. “The city has a population of about 600,000 residents in 300,000 households packed into a 50-square mile area made up of 10 distinct neighborhoods. Boston is unlike any other US city in the way it is laid out. It’s not a grid layout common to all its communities. Basically, what you have here are not just bedroom communities, like West Roxbury and Hyde Park, where the homes have driveways and plenty of storage capacity. The closer you get to Boston proper to areas like Charlestown, the North End, and the downtown area, homes have little space to store the trash for a full week. Hence, the majority of the city’s areas require trash collection three times a week—typically Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—simply because of limited storage on the fire escape or the basement and the absence of alleys.
“The move was made even more complex by the fact that our solid waste management is completely privatized,” he adds. “And I mean everything—haulers, MRFs, transfer stations, disposal facilities—everyone and his equipment. Right now, City Capital Waste out of East Boston handles about 72% of the trash volume in the large neighborhoods and Sunrise Scavengers out of Hyde Park serves the smaller neighborhoods. Almost nothing goes to a landfill. About 99% of the trash is hauled to two waste-to-energy facilities.”
DeRosa explains that, while the state of Massachusetts stubbornly insists on its ban on the expansion or permitting of new waste-to-energy plants, there are grandfathered waste-to-energy plants up and running in the state. “Trash from our districts 2 and 4 are hauled to Waste Management’s waste-to-energy facility in Saugus, MA,” he says. “Trash from all other districts goes to a transfer station either in Braintree or Lynn, MA. From there it goes either to one of Covanta’s waste-to-energy plant in Rochester, MA, or to Covanta’s Facility in Haverhill Hill, MA. Recyclables are hauled directly to the Casella Recycling Systems’ MRF here in Charlestown.”
“There are separate contracts for recycling haulers and MRFs,” Cascino adds. “And trash disposal and recycling processing are also covered by separate contracts. There are no direct profits to the city for either sales of recyclables or for the value of waste-to-energy feedstock provided by our trash. We put out our bids for both trash and recyclables first. Then we have the contract haulers make their bids to the processing facilities. The combined total determines our cost. We don’t get any credit from the sale of the recyclables or the payment by the WTE facilities. It’s factored into the bid price.
“We had been doing very well for 15 years with the dual-stream collection. We were paying a flat fee for the commingled recyclables and were on a revenue basis on the paper. When were piloting single-stream, we were renegotiating our contract with the haulers, which was about up. And then the market went south. We were only able to negotiate a one-year contract that cost us $34 a ton for the collection of our recyclables just as we were planning to go citywide with single-stream. Fortunately, nobody backed off single-stream implementation because of this unexpected cost increase, but we’re certainly glad that the current renegotiation of those contracts looks like the costs will be only a quarter of the previous contract.”
“The first step was to obtain and evaluate wheeled carts on the market,” Cascino recalls. “Helped by a $25,000 grant from the state, we established a pilot program for the big carts. We solicited cart manufacturers to donate carts for our pilot with a potential for selling us a much greater quantity. Their response was, ‘If you like them, you’ll have to pay for them; if you don’t like them, we’ll take them back.’ We got good carts at fairly good prices that way (about $35 including assembly and distribution). When we bought them, we added a full-color graphic decal on each lid showing exactly what could be recycled in that cart.”
“Eventually we ordered 55,000 of the best ones to meet the need of citywide single-stream collection,” DeRosa says. “These are excellent carts, warranted for 10 years. Other carts we had tried became brittle in the winter and cracked. The trial program was a very helpful tool for us.”
“Fortunately, the contract haulers didn’t have to make a big investment in automated sideloaders,” Cascino says. “They had already been using sideloaders for a number of years because big buildings had been using big wheeled carts for their recycling.”
As the new carts arrived, the city began in May 2007 to pilot-test single-stream collection in various different communities. In parallel, the city launched a communications program called “Recycle More” to inform all city residents as to what was going to happen and what the benefits promised to be. Then, as the results of the pilot projects began to come in, they published comparative recycling volumes that exceeded those of a year earlier. They also interviewed residents affected by the pilot program both to get valuable user feedback and to obtain positive testimonials that they could publish in the citywide “Recycle More” newsletter.
The first single-stream pilot was launched in May 2007, providing large wheeled carts and collecting recyclables from 2,500 households along one recycling collection route that spans parts of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. Four months later, on September 27, 2007, Mayor Menino’s office issued a press release announcing the early results of this pilot project as achieving “a 53% increase in recycling, a 16% decrease in trash, and cleaner streets.”
This announcement also described the next pilot program starting on the South End, ostensibly to educate the South End residents who would partake in this recycling, but also to both allay concerns and whet appetites of residents citywide. The carefully worded release didn’t actually commit to citywide single-stream collection but, as excerpted here, the wording strongly suggested it: “Mayor Menino and the city’s Public Works and Transportation Department are investigating ways to increase participation, tonnage, and cleanliness of the weekly curbside recycling collection program. … A ‘Recycle More’ pilot is now being launched in the South End. Beginning Tuesday, October 2, South End residents can mix their paper, bottles, cans, and plastic container together. This collection method is known in the recycling industry as ‘single-stream’ collection.
“‘Littered streets and alleys have been an ongoing issue for South End residents. The Recycle More single-stream pilot can be part of the solution,’ Mayor Menino said. ‘Over the past decade, we’ve expanded recycling to every corner of the city, now it’s time to take the program to the next level. By testing larger carts, clear plastic bags and single-stream, we expect to improve our environment and save taxpayers’ resources.’
“Residents with alley collection will be given large-wheeled carts to uses in place of their recycling bins. The cart pilot will occur in the alleys between Massachusetts Avenue and Yarmouth Street and between Columbus Avenue and the Orange Line. Residents who put their recycling on the curb in front of their houses will be allowed to use clear plastic bags instead of recycling bins. The clear plastic bags are being offered to these residents because many have been unable to recycle due their inability to store recycling bins.
“This program is also looking at how we can encourage residents to recycle more not only for environmental benefits but to ultimately save city resources. For every ton of trash residents recycle, the city saves $70 on residents’ trash disposal fee.
“The program will gauge the impact these carts have on participation rates, total tonnage collected, and spillage on the street. The approximately 7,000 households in residential buildings with six or fewer units will be participating. Five hundred residents with alley collection will use either a 95- or 65-gallon wheeled-cart. Remaining residents will be able to take part in the recycling program by placing their recyclables in clear plastic bags. These bags, which will be available in neighborhood stores, take up less space than the blue bins, yet will allow residents to put all recyclables in one place. Storing trash in proper trash receptacles will also be monitored. Residents can use 32-gallon trash cans or strong (two-ply plastic) 32-gallon black or green trash bags.”
The pilot programs continued over the next two years as the city pilot-tested single-stream recycling strategies in an effort to increase participation, tonnage, and cleanliness of its weekly curbside recycling collection during the last two years. Following the May 2007 Jamaica Plain and Roslindale pilot, other pilot programs were initiated in the following areas:
- Approximately 7,000 households in the South End participated in using clear plastic garbage bags to collect their single-stream recyclables, and 500 households received 64-gallon carts starting in October 2007.
- 5,000 households in the North End, Beacon Hill, the West End, and Chinatown participated by using clear plastic garbage bags and nearly 200 households received carts starting in May 2008.
- In West Roxbury, 15,000 carts were provided to households across the neighborhood in July 2008.
And then, on June 23, 2009, after a nine-month program of resident education, Mayor Menino made the long-awaited announcement of citywide single-stream recycling, shrewdly leading off with the bullish statement that “…city officials expect to exceed over $1 million in annual savings due to a new and innovative, single-stream recycling program that will start citywide July 1. As part of the recycling program, over the next 12 months the city will roll out over 55,000 carts across the city making it easier for residents in individual households or six-unit apartment buildings to collect their recyclables.
“This single-stream recycling program is key to Boston’s sustainability and is a great example of how we are thinking creatively to make sure Boston’s future is bright despite the difficult economic times we’re facing. This program makes recycling easier for residents to help the environment.
“Single-stream recycling allows users to combine all recyclables from pizza boxes to plastic soda bottles and glass containers into one bin. The program will also accept what are known as ‘rigid plastics’—children’s toys and other hard plastics typically not accepted in regular recycling. To help educate Boston residents how easy the new program is 300,000 Recycling and Trash Guides are currently being mailed to every household in Boston.
“Recycling is one of the easiest steps individuals can take to both improve our environment and reduce costs of waste disposal. The pilot programs we advanced in several Boston neighborhoods increased recycling by more than 50% and clearly demonstrated that Boston residents want to do their part to recycle more.
“Economically, the more residents recycle, the bigger the cost savings to the city. The cost to recycle a ton of waste is $40 cheaper than it is to send to landfills or incinerators, and the city expects to see a surge in recycling participation resulting in approximately $1 million in savings every year. “
Well! This extraordinary news release made it look like Popular Science’s 4.9 out of 5 rating of Boston’s recycling might be reasonable even before the vast majority of residents had not yet participated. The big question was whether or not the “more than 50%” recycling increase estimate would hold up citywide. Cascino isn’t sure of that number, but she regards the results of the first year of cart roll-out and single-stream recycling in much of the city as “promising.” “The facts are,” she points out in an interview in mid-April 2010, “that since we started the roll-out of single-stream recycling last July, our overall city recycling has increased 33% in those months over the amount recycled from July 1, 2008 through February 28, 2009. However, when we compared the first quarter recycling totals this year with those of the same period last year, the increase was 43%.”
That may be an indicator that the one-year program has been gathering steam as it goes along, and the single-stream recycling is just beginning to reach its volume potential, which may be the 50% recycling increase that seems to be the basis of the mayor’s expectation of annual savings that will “exceed $1 million in annual savings.”
At the same time, in a recent quarter this year, the trash collection decreased 7%. Of course, as DeRosa pointed out, in recent years the recession has limited the amount of trash generated. However, the recession in 2010 is certainly no worse than it was in 2009. Hence, increased recycling may well be the major factor leading to this year’s lower trash collection volume.
Cascino agrees, saying, “Before the big carts became available, residents might well find that their weekly recyclables wouldn’t fit in the 14-gallon barrels designated for recyclables. They could, of course, request a second barrel, but if the overload was just a sporadic event, they might well not request a second barrel but instead put the overflow recyclables in with the trash. It occurred frequently, yet apparently overflow trash was rarely put into the recycling barrel. I can’t remember a recyclable collection truck load being rejected.”
DeRosa adds that since the new single-stream recycling got into full swing, they have been able to reduce the number of trash collection days needed in many routes from three times a week to two times or even just one time a week. Moreover, he is finding that many streets are much cleaner, and that there is no longer as much confusion among residents as to which day the trash is to be picked up on a given route.
What’s up Next?
Although they were asked that impertinent question while they were still in the midst of a huge and complicated citywide rollout, neither Susan Cascino nor Robert DeRosa hesitated for a minute. Cascino went first, saying, “For me, it will be building on what we have started to achieve with citywide single-stream recycling. We have a ways to go to optimize this thing. So far, citywide single-stream recycling has essentially been an oversized pilot project. We have been learning, and the city residents have been learning as we go. Now, we have to concentrate on how efficient we can make this new kind of mass recycling. At the same time, we’re already developing a pilot program to determine whether and how we can expand our cart collection to include trash. And who knows? Maybe we can extend the system to organics in the future.”
“For me, it’s getting costs under firm control so that we can maximize the payoff of our integrated collection,” said DeRosa. “If we can get everything automated or semi-automated in some of our communities, we hope to get our collection costs down. Largely because of rising labor costs and worker comp costs, our collection costs are starting to get higher than our disposal costs. When communities get to the situation where their collection is fully automated, those costs will start to come down significantly. We know we have a lot of work to do to reach that position and extend that capability to more and more communities. But it will happen.”