Trash fee may boost recycling

Pay-as-you-throw system given a test

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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In what it hopes will be a boost to the environment and the town’s coffers, the Swampscott Board of Health has set new limits on how much trash residents can leave out for curbside collection.

The policy, set to take effect Oct. 1, limits residents to three trash containers - either 35-gallon barrels or 30-gallon bags - and a single bulky item. The limit will drop to two containers next July 1. Residents can exceed the limit by leaving out extra bags, but only if they attach to each bag a sticker that will cost $2.

The board approved the new policy on Tuesday, acting after the Board of Selectmen that same night voted 3-2 to authorize the sticker fee on a trial basis through June 30.

Martha Dansdill, chairwoman of the Board of Health, said the intent of the new policy is to reduce the volume of the town’s waste collection by encouraging residents to recycle and reuse items they would ordinarily toss in the trash.

Until now, Swampscott allowed residents to leave out up to eight trash containers, but Dansdill said even that limit was seldom enforced.

“We want to do our part to minimize pollution and greenhouse gases from the waste that we contribute to landfills and incinerators and that ultimately affects our health,’’ she said.

Another goal is to “conserve natural resources by encouraging a more conscientious effort to recycle,’’ Dansdill said, noting that Swampscott residents recycle only about 17 percent of their trash.

“And we want to foster an environmental ethic in our community and set an example for our children,’’ she said.

Dansdill said lowering Swampscott’s trash volume would also save the town money by reducing its cost to dispose of trash at the Wheelabrator Saugus trash incinerator. Her board estimates its new policy could reduce the town’s trash volume by 20 to 30 percent, saving about $83,000 to $124,000 a year.

But the questions of imposing a fee for the stickers divided selectmen.

Board members Jill G. Sullivan, Richard Malagrifa, and Barry Greenfield voted in favor of the sticker fee, while chairman Matt Strauss and David S. Van Dam were opposed.

Calling the town’s 17 percent recycling rate an “abysmal number,’’ Greenfield said last week that “people need an incentive to recycle more.’’

And, noting that 40 percent of residences in town are one or two-person households, he said, “For years, they have been carrying the load for people who throw away significantly more garbage.’’

Greenfield also pointed out that residents who are willing to recycle more will not have to pay a fee.

“There’s no limit on how much you can recycle,’’ he said. “In reality, you could recycle up to 75 percent of your garbage.’’ He said Swampscott is “behind the curve as a town in terms of waste reduction . . . The progressive cities and towns across the United States are moving toward 100 percent recycling in 2020 or 2025.’’

But Strauss argued that Swampscott residents already pay for trash removal in their property taxes, and have done so since the town did away with a separate trash fee that existed from 1996 to 2001.

“So my feeling was that by setting another fee for removal of excess trash, it’s a double tax,’’ he said. “I think it’s an unfair financial burden on large households.’’

Currently 132 Massachusetts communities have versions of the so-called pay-as-you-throw system, which uses a volume-based fee for trash collection to encourage recycling, according to Brooke Nash, branch chief for municipal recycling for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Swampscott will be joining the ranks of another 35 or so municipalities that follow what the Department of Environmental Protection calls “trash limits policies,’’ those that have adopted two- to four-barrel limits. Nash said her department encourages municipalities to adopt such policies, and helps them follow through.

“Anything that is going to incentivize residents to recycle, reuse, and compost more and put less in the trash is something the state is very supportive of,’’ she said.

The Board of Health last fall proposed a pay-as-you-throw plan that would have limited households to a single container. But board members dropped that plan after selectmen objected to the fee residents would have had to pay to purchase official town bags for any trash above the limit.

The Board of Health then went to work on developing a less restrictive plan that could garner support.

Dansdill said her board is pleased selectmen voted to allow the fee even though that authorization extends only to June 30. The time limit was included at the request of Malagrifa to give selectmen an opportunity to assess the policy before making the fee permanent.

“I think it’s good they added that,’’ Dansdill said. “This is a new plan for Swampscott. . . . I think as the benefits are realized the plan will be embraced by the community and certainly that the fee will continue.’’

Those who violate the new trash rules can be fined $50 to $300. But Dansdill said, except in rare instances, the board does not foresee fining people for exceeding curbside trash limits. Instead, she said the hauler will simply not pick up trash at any household that exceeds the limits.

“I think having trash left curbside is a message enough,’’ she said.