Amherst launches state-funded to improve separation of trash, recyclables

  • Overflowing bins next to Orange Orchard, Valencia region, Spain. Jan Jefferson

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2018

AMHERST — During an initial sweep examining the trash and recyclables left outside single-family and multi-family homes, Styrofoam containers, plastic bags and containers with liquids were found in recycling containers, while recyclable products ended up in trash bags.

“I definitely saw a lot of cardboard being thrown away,” said Mimi Kaplan, the town’s waste enforcement coordinator, about her observations last fall during which she began collecting data about how well Amherst residents were recycling.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Sustainable Materials Recovery Program, Kaplan is embarking on a two-year effort to improve the separation of trash and recyclables. Amherst has dual-stream recycling, meaning bottles and cans are recycled separately from paper and cardboard.

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

Beyond that, the Board of Health rules, adopted in 1995 and reviewed and revised June 12, 2014, state that refuse should contain no more than 5 percent recyclables.

While many residents and tenants are accustomed to separating recyclables, Kaplan said she found that Amherst has just a 32 percent recycling rate, in line with the 30 to 35 percent estimates provided by waste haulers.

The state, working with recycling contractors, is trying to improve these rates and the quality of recyclables after China began refusing to buy low-grade plastics. In July, China notified the World Trade Organization of its change in policy.


When trash and recyclables are at curbside, Kaplan and the haulers will examine the containers, bags and barrels and place tags and stickers she has ordered that mark the reasons that the contents are determined not in compliance with town rules.

“We will try our best to tag them and tell them how there is an issue with it,” Kaplan said. “Hopefully, we’ll explain what is wrong with their recycling and trash.”

Haulers will have the option to not remove contaminated loads. “That doesn’t mean recycling or trash won’t be collected, necessarily,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan is seeking assistance from the haulers, primarily Duseau Trucking, Amherst Trucking and Alternative Recycling Systems, and hopes drivers can help her in inspections, especially since many routes are early in the morning. But the amount of time they can spend at each stop may limit this.

If violations are found and continue, residents could be subject to $50 to $500 fines per week, based on the regulation.

“We are not fining people yet, though that is in the long-range plan,” Kaplan said, explaining that could happen in May.

Privacy issues

With any initiative that requires such close inspection comes concern about the inspection process.

“I make it clear to people that we’re not looking through people’s trash,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said bottles or paper put in a trash bag, or garbage put in a recycling bin, can be obvious on visual inspection. But she said she and haulers may have to lift trash-can covers to make better observations.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the work follows the existing regulation that allows the health board, Department of Public Works and police officers to be enforcement agents, and gives them the authority to do inspections and issue citations.

“Enforcement agents may inspect refuse and recycling receptacles,” the regulation reads. It goes on to note they can also do spot checks from the point of pickup to place of disposal.

The grant, Bockelman said, is providing the town resources to help haulers.

“It’s basically to make sure they’re doing their job,” Bockelman said.

He understands that some residents may be wary of having this done, but is confident that there won’t be any issues. “This is an educational tool,” Bockelman said.

Yet in Seattle the concern with privacy became a court case.

In 2016, a Washington state judge ruled that there are limits on how closely Seattle could monitor trash for materials, in that case food scraps, which couldn’t be more than 10 percent of a household’s trash.

Starting in January 2015, residents were told by Seattle Public Utilities they would be fined $1 for single-family homes and $50 for businesses and multifamily dwellings for noncompliance.

King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus wrote in her decision, “The city could not explain how inspectors can compute the 10 percent limit without searching through a resident’s garbage bags.”

But in Massachusetts, there is no similar provision, with the state DEP awarding grants that explicitly call on communities, and their haulers, to do such work.

“I think it’s difficult to argue that a person has a private interest or an expectation of privacy in abandoned property, and garbage is essentially abandoned property,” said William Newman, director of the Western Regional Law Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

He noted that the Fourth Amendment also speaks to the issue.

“Once a person disposes of garbage they have given up their control of it, they’ve therefore forfeited their privacy to it,” Newman said.

But still, those overseeing the inspections should know that some residents will be uncomfortable with having their garbage and recyclables inspected, and there should be sensitivity to the work.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case in 1988, said that the decision to throw something away effectively puts that object into the public domain, meaning the police do not need a warrant to grab a suspect’s garbage.

But the Washington Supreme Court held in a case in 1990 that law enforcement officials needed a warrant to search a suspect’s trash for evidence in a criminal case.

Susan Waite, recycling coordinator for Northampton, said haulers who pick up trash in the city are obligated to keep recyclables in that trash to minimum thresholds, with inspections done at landfills and incinerators and consequences, including rejected loads, if they exceed limits.

This means haulers may do inspections of what they are picking up in the city if anything appears to be amiss.

“The incentive is for haulers to make sure people are responsible as much as possible,” Waite said.

Kaplan said two interns from the University of Massachusetts will help do outreach for the program. While focused mostly on homes, apartment complexes will eventually be the focus as she finds other ways to reach these tenants.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.