Editorial: Amherst moves ahead to reduce waste

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Amherst took an important step this month when the Select Board accepted a solid waste master plan that calls for developing strategies that move the town closer to becoming a zero-waste community.

In the coming months, town officials will work with homeowners, renters, landlords, businesses, educational institutions, trash haulers and others interested in considering the recommendations put forward by the Amherst Recycling and Refuse Management Committee.

Among the most essential are increasing composting of food wastes and improving education in general about reuse and recycling opportunities.

The committee’s report notes that Amherst’s waste disposal system already has many strengths, including an excellent transfer station used by some residents for recycling and composting.

However, the report points out that “U.S. municipal waste has grown in complexity over the last 10 years with the growth of electronic and plastic waste, chemical hazards, and a  new awareness of its impact on climate change.”

The report continues, “The Zero Waste movement is making a powerful impact with regards to waste reduction. It involves reducing consumption and disposal rates in order to preserve natural resources and minimize our global carbon footprint, and requires changing our perspective regarding discarded material from ‘waste’ and ‘trash’ to ‘residual product’ and ‘potential resource.’ ”

The goals proposed for Amherst are  in line with the state’s solid waste master plan, subtitled “Pathway to Zero Waste,” which was adopted in 2013. It calls for cutting by 30 percent the amount of waste disposed of in Massachusetts between 2008 (6.55 million tons) and 2020 (4.55 million tons).

Among the state’s goals are providing technical assistance to small businesses to encourage increased recycling and composting, requiring waste haulers to offer full recycling services to their customers, and better enforcing bans on recyclables being mixed with waste.

Both the state and town master plans identify paper and organics as priorities to move from the waste stream – where they continue to be discarded in large quantities – to recycling and composting.  

Among the recommendations under consideration in Amherst is “adding a requirement that all compostable material (including discarded food, food-tainted paper and cardboard, and yard waste) be excluded from household trash and that haulers offer curbside collection of organics.”

John Root, the musician, naturalist and educator who chairs the Recycling and Refuse Management Committee, says he is encouraged with the support from the Select Board and Town Manager Paul Bockelman. Even if the town this year does not match a state grant to pay for a new waste management coordinator, Root expects Bockelman to assign some responsibilities of that job to existing staff, including help with a public education campaign.

Particularly important in Amherst is reaching tenants and landlords because about half the town’s population lives in multifamily residences, where, according to the report, “the town does  not currently conduct any outreach or compliance activity with owners, managers or residents.”

Creating a task force involving town officials, landlords and waste haulers to come up with “simple and convenient” recycling measures for the many students who pass through those apartment complexes is a smart idea.

Some of the master plan’s recommendations will be relatively easy to carry out, such as adding more clearly marked recycling bins next to trash receptacles in public places throughout town, including recreational fields, parks, bus stops and schools.

Other challenges are more complex and may require solutions that reach beyond Amherst. If the town succeeds in significantly stepping up the collection of  organic materials – particularly from restaurants – it would have to find a place to dispose of those compostables. Working with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to establish a regional composting facility might be one solution.

The solid waste master plan is available online at www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/35741. Comments may be emailed to publicworks@amherstma.gov. We urge wide community involvement. Everyone has a stake in throwing away less and recycling and reusing more.