The city’s Zero Waste Master Plan charts a path to reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills by 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, compared to a 2008 baseline.
The plan is a guiding document to help the city reach targets it set in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s 2008 Solid Waste Master Plan, which set similar trash reduction goals.
“Cambridge signed on and said, ‘All right, we want to do that too, we want to kind of set targets so that we can start, instead of just hoping to recycle more and compost more, we actually set targets to do it better,’” Cambridge Recycling Director Michael Orr explains.
A draft of the plan was released in February, with public comments open through March 15. The final plan is set to be revealed on April 1, according to the city’s website.
The Zero Waste Master Plan centers around composting, recycling, and other ways of diverting items from trash.
The city’s goals come out to 16 pounds of trash per household per week in 2020 and 4.5 pounds per household per week in 2050. The targets are “not too hard” to reach, Orr says.
One reason for confidence is that waste audits of random samples of garbage in the city showed that the majority of materials people were throwing away can be diverted from the trash stream.
“What we found was about 40 percent of our trash is compostable, about 15 percent is recyclable, and then … I think it’s about another 10 to 15 percent were divertable in another way,” Orr says.
The materials that could be diverted in other ways included scrap metal, clothing, and electronics, according to Orr, which can be recycled at certain locations. The city aims to start a mattress recycling program in April, he adds.
Divertable materials that remained in the trash stream in 2016 included an estimated 4,768 tons of food scraps, 1,190 tons of compostable fibers (meaning paper towels, napkins, and other papers), and 2,608 tons of recyclable materials, according to the plan draft.
Orr notes that the city is already taking steps to achieve some of the goals outlined in the plan, including last year’s curbside compost program launch.
Recycling, a large component of the plan, has faced a major new hurdle over the past year. In January 2018, the Chinese government implemented new anti-pollution standards and banned 24 types of solid waste that it previously recycled from western countries, including the United States and the U.K., according to the New York Times. China also set new standards for how much contamination it would accept in the materials it was importing.
The new standards have led some recycling companies to haul away materials to landfills or stop accepting items such as certain plastics, glass, and some types of paper, according to the Times.
In Cambridge, if the contamination rate—the amount of non-recyclable items in the recycling stream—isn’t below seven percent, the city’s recycling costs go up.
“We had something in our contract where they could charge us double per ton,” Orr says. “So we were paying $35 per ton, and now we’re paying $70 per ton, because we’re above that contamination level.”
Still, it’s far cheaper to recycle than it is to have trash hauled away. It costs the city about $100 per ton of trash, while composting costs about $60 per ton.
“As landfill space and incineration space dwindles in New England, the market is pushing the cost higher and higher for trash,” Orr explains. “And so recycling and composting, on a per-ton basis, is cheaper than trash.”
The department is working to better educate the public on what can and can’t be recycled. The city sent out a mailer to every household in December to outline for residents what is and isn’t recyclable.
While Orr says that “people really do want to do the right thing,” he acknowledges that misinformation and misconceptions about what people can put in their curbside bins still exist. Common items that people often recycle even though they aren’t recyclable include plastic bags, bubble wrap, clothing hangers, paper towels, paper plates, and electronics.
On the flip side, many people don’t realize that pizza boxes are recyclable and often throw them away, Orr says.
“They’re recyclable,” Orr says. “That is the one exception when a little bit of grease or a little bit of food residue is OK, and the reason for that is pizza boxes are basically cardboard, they’re corrugated paper, and there is such a high value to that type of paper, whereas a lot of other types of paper are lower quality.”
There’s a fine line between when a pizza box is recyclable and when it’s too contaminated, though: “What I would say is if you want to go the extra mile and really help us out, cut out that really greasy part of the pizza box,” Orr says. “And when you cut out that little greasy part, you actually could just put that in your compost bin.”
As for the composting program, Orr says it’s “doing well” but adds that the city needs “to get more participation.”
The city achieved its initial goal of getting a 40-percent composting participation rate by April 2018, Orr says. Now, it’s hoping to increase that number, both by getting eligible households on board and by rolling out the program to buildings with at least 13 units starting between fall 2019 and fall 2020.
If fully utilized, the composting program could reduce trash disposal by four to five pounds per household per week, according to a draft of the plan.
“It takes time and continued outreach to bring new folks into trying a new diversion program such as composting,” Orr told Scout in a follow up email. “It’s not always the most pleasant program to participate in. But, the payback in terms of cost and environmental savings are huge for the city and thus the residents.”