With state landfill capacity dwindling, MassRecycle conference explores recycling remedies

by Megan Quinn, April 4, 2022

Disposal constraints in Massachusetts are a well-known challenge, and the state’s legislative and municipal efforts to redirect material away from landfills come with their own share of hurdles. Speakers at the MassRecycle conference, held virtually March 31 and April 1, shared examples of what’s working and what’s still needed to make long-lasting changes to the commonwealth’s waste reduction efforts. Here are a few takeaways from the event.

Economic factors further squeeze outlets for waste in Massachusetts

Landfill capacity will continue to shrink in New England as more facilities close and few permits are issued for landfill expansions, said Ben Harvey, president of Waste Connections subsidiary E.L. Harvey & Sons. “There won’t be any new landfills,” he added. Massachusetts’ seven waste-to-energy facilities are also aging, leading to an increase in unscheduled downtime that affects the flow of material, he said. 

The commonwealth disposes of about 4 million tons of waste each year, and waste-to-energy facilities process about 3 million tons of that material, he said. It sends an additional 2 million tons of waste for disposal to nearby states, including New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Alabama, he said.

Downtime issues at WTE facilities have caused waste to back up at Massachusetts transfer stations, which cannot divert the material to local landfills because of a lack of capacity. This was a particular issue at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when households were generating more trash. “We can’t just stop picking up from people’s houses,” Harvey said. 

Trucking waste to other states has become a bigger problem in recent years, not just because of capacity constraints but also because state laws limit truck weights, making it hard to maximize loads. Longer routes out of state mean truck drivers must take breaks mandated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that factor into the total delivery time. The nationwide “truck driver shortage,” coupled with rising fuel prices, further complicate the already expensive endeavor, Harvey said. Sending MSW by rail will likely become a more common solution to the problem, but rail is not always available or reliable, he said.

On the upside, MRFs are making significant equipment upgrades and investing in automation, which will increase productivity and quality, he said. This will bolster the domestic market for recycled commodities, which has already “picked up about 80% of the volume” that once was exported to China before that country stopped accepting most recycled materials in 2018.

Residential mixed paper and OCC processed in New England are still finding export markets in places like India, which uses it to make linerboard and boxboard it then sells to China, Harvey said.  

Four EPR bills expected to die in state legislature

Proponents of extended producer responsibility bills say the efforts will help keep materials out of the landfill, but some supporters in Massachusetts don’t expect this year’s EPR for packaging bill to pass. Additional bills establishing EPR programs for mattresses and paint, along with a bill meant to extend the state’s prescription drug takeback program, similarly are expected to die before the two-year legislative session ends this July. 

The four EPR bills, introduced last spring, were discussed in a June 2021 hearing of the legislature’s joint environment, natural resources and agriculture committee, but they have languished ever since, said Waneta Trabert, sustainable materials management director for the city of Newton and MassRecycle’s vice president. She said lobbyists told her on Friday that the March 31 deadline to move the bills out of committee may have been extended, but she isn’t optimistic that any extra time will help move the bills.

A major hurdle, Trabert said, is the lack of a “legislative champion” who can passionately advocate for the bills to shepherd them out of the committee process and on to a vote. More advocacy and lobbying efforts would also help, she said.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection released a new solid waste master plan that prohibits the disposal of mattresses and organics from certain locations starting in November. 

EPR supporters in Massachusetts have learned from watching how other states handled their own EPR hurdles and successes, Trabert said. Oregon’s governor signed a mattress EPR bill into law in March, and both Maine and Oregon are in the process of implementing EPR for packaging bills passed last year. 

Municipalities work to partner with multifamily housing to curb waste 

The city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, has worked to expand recycling access for multifamily housing while also reducing contamination in the recycling stream. The city’s closest landfill is Crapo Hill, the last new landfill the state permitted, said Marissa Perez-Dormitzer, waste reduction manager of the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District.

“One of the main goals that we have is to extend the life of the landfill by diverting what we can. We’re really fortunate that we have a local landfill, but we have all heard about how capacity is declining in the state,” she said.

Last year, New Bedford started a recycling cart loan program to give residents more recycling capacity during the pandemic, when households were generating more trash at home. “We were finding, especially in multifamily homes, recycling was unfortunately being placed in the trash when there was no more room in the recycling carts,” said Jessica Camarena, the city’s waste reduction enforcement coordinator. So far, the city has loaned out 328 carts. The city monitors the carts to make sure residents are correctly sorting the material and uses feedback such as “oops tags” to educate residents who are still putting trash in the recycling bins. 

Before the pandemic, Camarena would host in-person meetings in multifamily buildings to teach residents how to recycle correctly, which she said was a good way to get to know residents and directly answer their questions. Camarena, who speaks Spanish as well as English, said it was also an important way to overcome language barriers. 

Once the pandemic began, “we had to adapt to new methods that would help landlords and property owners educate their tenants,” she said. Luckily, the department had already been working on educational recycling videos in English, Portuguese and Spanish, which they posted to YouTube.

Meanwhile, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working to get more residents and property owners on board with the city’s organics recycling program. The program paused temporarily in 2021, and now that it’s back online, the city wants to bring participation back up to its former levels. 

The city’s transient population, mixed with a lingering rodent problem, are two hurdles, said Michael Orr, the city’s recycling director. “We have a lot of renters and nonresidential property managers, so working with property managers to make the program something that they would want to do is very difficult,” he said.

Cambridge is offering new trash carts to residents to replace those with cracks or holes that rats can wiggle into. It also offers compost bins with a latch on top to keep out pests. Organics recycling is an important part of the city’s waste management services, he said, because about 40% of household trash is made of food scraps. Cambridge sends food waste to a nearby anaerobic digester, which Orr said is controversial for some residents but is currently the best option “for a place like Massachusetts, where land is [at] a true premium.”

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