State’s trash reduction plan cheered, jeered

Boston Statehouse
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BOSTON (State House News Service) – After two years of public hearings and planning, the Baker administration’s plan for how to handle the state’s solid waste over the next decade landed with a thud among environmental advocates, who panned the proposal as “too little too late.”

The Department of Environmental Protection officially set a target to cut down waste disposal in Massachusetts 30 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050 as part of its final 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan published Monday. That effort aims to address the fact that, in the words of Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, “too much trash in Massachusetts still contains materials that can be recycled and reused.”

While advocates praised a handful of components in the plan such as a new ban on disposing textiles and mattresses starting in November 2022, they contended that environmental regulators fell short of the action needed to rein in pollution and improve public health.

Groups called for the state to revamp its approach with an additional focus on composting, a new crackdown on throwing away materials such as paper and glass, and less emphasis on burning trash.

“We need MassDEP to do better,” said Kirstie Pecci, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project. “Massachusetts is burning and burying as much waste now as we did in 2010. It’s long past time to phase out incineration, ban food scraps from trash and enforce existing waste bans. These pleas have apparently fallen on deaf ears as nothing in the state’s plan will fix our broken recycling system, decrease disposal rates, or save cities and towns money. Our health and the environment deserve better.”

In 2018, Massachusetts steered about 5.66 million tons of solid waste to landfills and incinerators or exported it for disposal. In 2019, the most recent year with annual data available, that figure dropped to 5.5 million tons.

The DEP’s master plan aims to slash the yearly solid waste disposal to 4 million tons by 2030, and it also sets a long-term goal of just 570,000 tons of waste by 2050, the same year by which the state must achieve net-zero carbon emissions under a climate law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in March.

To get there, DEP plans to lower the amount of food and other organic waste Massachusetts businesses are allowed to toss from one ton per week to half a ton per week and add mattresses and textiles to the list of materials prohibited from disposal. Both of those regulatory changes are set to take effect Nov. 1, 2022.

DEP’s solid waste plan additionally calls for reducing the amount of plastic materials burned to help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions that municipal combustors produce by 300,000 metric tons every year.

The department continues to work on a “Reduce and Reuse Action Plan,” which DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg said would be the first comprehensive outline aimed at reducing and reusing waste rather than just recycling. Officials expect to publish an initial version by the end of the year.

Environmental justice communities will feature as a main focus in the plan, which calls for increased engagement with EJ populations during DEP regulatory processes, improved recycling grant evaluations, small-scale composting assistance to help community gardens, and deployment of hybrid and electric trash and recycling pick-up vehicles in those communities.

Regulators also set another target for the decade’s midpoint: in 2025, DEP will conduct a program review that could involve creating a declining cap on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from municipal combustors.

“The Solid Waste Master Plan will significantly improve the Commonwealth’s waste management system and provide important environmental, climate and economic benefits,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Together, the Master Plan and the regulations set new, aggressive state-level waste reduction goals that align with our carbon emission reduction programs, invest in innovation and enhance ongoing engagement with communities across the Commonwealth.”

To environmental advocates disappointed in the decade-long plan, the administration did not go far enough to divert many sources of waste from being buried or burned. More than 30 percent of the state’s trash that heads to landfills and incinerators is food and yard waste, they say, which could be composted.

“For years, DEP regulations have required any entity that generates more than 1 ton of this waste must divert it from disposal,” the Zero Waste Massachusetts coalition said in a joint statement. “We know how to ban food and yard waste completely, and this plan only gets us halfway to the goal posts.”

The quartet of groups constituting Zero Waste Massachusetts — CLF, Clean Water Action, MASSPIRG and Community Action Works — also flagged enforcement as an area of need. Materials such as paper, cardboard, glass and metal, which under regulations are banned from disposal, still represent more than 40 percent of waste that heads to landfills and incinerators, they said.

“When asked in the briefing about what more will be done to enforce the bans, the answer came back: ‘We’ll do what we’ve been doing,” the groups said in their statement.

The final plan’s topline figure — slashing solid waste disposal roughly 1.7 million tons below 2018 levels over the next decade — mirrors the draft plan environmental officials unveiled in September 2019. At that time, Massachusetts had been on pace to miss the goal set in the 2020 plan, which called for reducing solid waste from 6.55 million tons in 2008 to 4.55 million tons in 2020.

The long-term 2050 waste target in the new plan is less than half of the 1.31 million-ton goal in the previous decade’s master plan.

Another component of the new master plan calls for DEP to work with the Legislature to reduce the widespread presence of single-use packaging and ensure access to recycling options across the state.

Casey Bowers, assistant vice president for government relations at the Environmental League of Massachusetts, called for lawmakers to advance a bill (H 878) that would require manufacturers to pay into a fund that will reduce solid waste, reimburse some municipal and private recycling costs, and create a new organization bringing together producers to craft waste reduction plans.

“We appreciate the efforts of DEP to update the Solid Waste Master Plan, but it is clear we will need legislative action to reach these targets,” Bowers said.

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