Editorial: Education key to improve recycling

Thursday, January 18, 2018

We are glad that Amherst has a new waste reduction enforcement coordinator and we support the goal of improving recycling in town. We hope that efforts focus more on educating residents than picking through their trash bags.

Mimi Kaplan began working last year in the position funded primarily by a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Sustainable Materials Recovery Program. Her mission during the next two years is to improve the separation of trash from recyclables, and increase the amount of clean material being recycled rather than going to landfills or incinerators.

Amherst, like other area communities including Northampton, has dual-stream recycling in which cans and bottles are separated from paper and cardboard.

“The biggest thing is to reduce contamination of recycling streams,” Kaplan says. “The town’s regulation says to separate recyclables from trash.”

According to town regulations, Amherst residents should not have more than 5 percent recyclables mixed in with their trash, and haulers are not supposed to collect trash that does not meet this standard.

Kaplan estimates that the town recycles only 32 percent of possible recyclables, which is in line with the figures provided by waste haulers who estimate a rate of between 30 percent and 35 percent. That means homeowners and tenants can do a lot better and should benefit from an educational refresher to keep recyclables clean and separated from trash.

Kaplan says her initial observations of trash bags and recyclables left outside single-family and multi-family homes revealed Styrofoam, plastic bags and containers with liquids mixed with material that can properly be recycled, while recyclables were put in with the trash. “I definitely saw a lot of cardboard being thrown away,” she says.

Her findings are based on visual observations, and Kaplan points out it is easy to detect if trash has been placed in a recycling bin. Though she says, “I make it clear to people that we’re not looking through people’s trash.” However, Kaplan did not rule out the possibility of lifting trash-can covers to make closer inspections in the future.

The first phase of the town’s educational campaign was completed late last year when a flier explaining the new initiatives and what materials can be recycled was sent to residents with their water bills. Recycling guidelines also are available online at www.amherstma.gov/889/Recycling-Guidelines.

Kaplan reminds residents that, “You might be tempted to put items in the recycling even if you’re not sure they can be recycled, but it’s better to check and leave them out if they can’t, or don’t use them in the first place. Some common items that people think can go in the recycling but cannot include plastic bags (but please bring them to a large grocery store or big box store that will recycle them), Styrofoam, any black plastic, frozen food boxes, hot drink cups, cold drink plastic cups and straws.”

She adds, “The recyclables that are contaminated (such as cardboard and paper that is very wet or dirty) have no resale value and unfortunately have to be added to the trash that goes to landfills.”

Kaplan and waste haulers now will examine bags, barrels and other containers of trash and recyclables left at curbside and tag those that do not comply with the town’s regulations, using stickers that explain the problem. “We’ll try our best to tag them and tell (residents) how there is an issue with it,” she says. “Hopefully, we’ll explain what is wrong with their recycling and trash.”

Haulers also will have the option of rejecting tagged containers that are contaminated. “That doesn’t mean recycling or trash won’t be collected, necessarily,” Kaplan says.

If problems persist, residents could be fined between $50 and $500 per week, depending on the regulation. “We are not fining people yet, though that is in the long-range plan” and could begin in May, according to Kaplan.

We hope it doesn’t come to that because the town would need clear evidence to back up fines, which in cases of mixing more than 5 percent recyclables in with trash would require a careful inventory of what’s in the bag. That strikes us as too big a dose of Big Brother.

We encourage residents to avoid that by being careful about how they separate recyclables and trash, and paying attention if they get “tagged.” It’s in the best interest of us all to get recycling right.