Local and Green with Darcy Dumont: Amherst zero-waste proposal gains traction

  • The Amherst Board of Health is considering a new system for managing waste, recyclables and compostable materials. Under the program, residents would have three toters, like pictured here, — one for recycling, one for compostable materials and one for trash.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

On Oct. 14, the Amherst Board of Health began to consider a new system for managing waste, recyclables and compostable materials that would dramatically reduce waste and waste-related emissions, improve the transparency of fees and collection scheduling, and likely save residents money.

In the first phase of the proposed program in Amherst, basic trash and recycling pick up for residents in one- to four-family homes would be expanded to include curbside pick up of compostable materials. So residents would have three toters — one for recycling, one for compostable materials and one for trash. Fees for these services would be paid to the town as part of customers’ water and sewer bills, and would include a basic charge for recycling and compostable materials pick up, plus a charge based on the amount and frequency of trash picked up.

Those producing less trash would pay less, so residents will be able to save money by keeping recyclables and compostables out of their trash. Compostable materials would be processed locally and reused for enrichment of the soil in farms and gardens in the valley.

Here are answers to some questions supporters of the proposal, Zero Waste Amherst, have fielded.

How would this proposal reduce waste? First, removal of compost from the waste stream reduces waste by approximately 40%. Second, resident payment is based on the amount of trash that is disposed of. Residents with the smallest trash toter, which is picked up once a month, would pay less, regardless of how much recycling and compostable materials they discard. This has been shown to incentivize residents to throw less in the trash.

Why are apartment complexes not being included in Phase 1 of this proposal?

Apartment complexes, multi-family residences, businesses and homeowners associations generally use dumpsters, so more time will be required to find solutions to their particular challenges.

What types of materials would be deposited in the compostable materials toter?

Food scraps (including meat and eggs); food-soiled paper (including paper towels, paper plates, pizza boxes, etc.); compostable containers (including clear and paper take out containers and utensils); clean wood; and yard waste are all compostable.

Where would this organic material go?

Ideally, Amherst and other surrounding towns will create regional composting facilities that can generate revenue from sales of the finished compost sold to farms and gardeners. Until that time, the closest facility that could process our compost would be Martin’s Farm in Greenfield.

Will residents still be allowed to bring their refuse, recycling, and compostable materials to the Transfer Station?

Yes, this option will still be available. The Transfer Station will still offer far more recycling opportunities than residential pick up.

Will people who choose to compost in their backyards be required to pay the standard fee for waste, recycling and compostable materials removal?

Yes. Backyard composting is encouraged, but it is difficult for home composting bins to include meat, eggs and other foods that don’t decompose well and can attract animals and vermin. Compost toters also have the capacity for bulky materials such as pizza boxes and yard waste that may not fit in home compost bins.

Are there any other improvements in service delivery being proposed?

Bulky items such as rugs, furniture and appliances would be picked up curbside several times a year, including at student move out/move in times and there would be more frequent collections of hazardous waste. Other goals include clearly defined pricing of services and public education.

What other communities have been studied?

ZWA worked with the Amherst Department of Public Works to research the practices of nine other Massachusetts municipalities through a Department of Environmental Protection technical assistance grant. ZWA has also consulted with advocates in Hamilton, which is the first town in Massachusetts to ban compostable materials from the waste stream.

How much will it cost residents? Will they save money?

Statistics show that residents of municipalities that contract directly with haulers pay about half as much as residents who subscribe for hauler services (as Amherst residents do with USA Hauling and Recycling). These savings will likely be somewhat offset by the cost of providing toters for compostable materials and other additional services. The net financial impact of proposed changes can only be determined by submitting requests for proposals (RFPs) to haulers.

Will haulers’ net emissions increase with added driving and pick ups?

Hopefully, miles driven by trucks will be kept to a minimum with the use of “split body trucks” that have separate compartments. Pick up routes can also be planned more efficiently, as USA Hauling is currently following the same routes of the three companies that it acquired. Minimizing miles driven will reduce both noise and wear and tear on our streets.

Will the town have extra costs?

Startup costs to set up the fee-based program and ongoing staffing to implement the program will be required.

How can renters help shape a later phase of the curbside compostable materials pickup at apartment complexes?

It will be important for our renter community to have a seat at the table to decide how to offer pick up of compostable materials at apartment complexes. Issues will include toters versus dumpsters, renter education and participation, and providing outreach in multiple languages.

How can businesses plan for a later phase in the compostable materials pickup program?

According to the new DEP Solid Waste Master Plan, businesses will be required to compost food scraps if they produce over 500 pounds per week starting next year. It is likely that all compostable materials will ultimately be banned from the waste stream, so it is in the interests of restaurants and other establishments to anticipate these changes.

Will schools also be affected?

The town separately does trash hauling for municipal buildings. It is exciting that the top architectural design firm being considered by the School Building Committee has promoted “triple net zero” goals — for energy, water and waste — for their buildings.

Does this plan seek to accomplish state and local zero waste and climate action goals?

Yes! The proposal seeks to reduce our waste and climate impacts per the DEP Solid Waste Master Plan and the Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy legislation, as well as our Amherst Climate Action Adaptation and Resilience Plan climate and zero waste goals. The proposal requires data collection and reporting that would establish baseline data and measure our progress toward achieving those zero waste and climate action goals.

How can you help?

Let the Board of Health know you support the proposal. Ask your organization to endorse the proposal by contacting ZWAmherst@gmail.com. Spread the word! Join Zero Waste Amherst and like us on Facebook.

Darcy DuMont is a member of the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee, founding member of Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and an Amherst town councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.