Is Zero Waste Achievable for Concord?

Printed in the Concord Journal, May 20, 2014

Zero Waste is an ideal by which society can reduce the amount of refuse being incinerated or sent to landfills to as close to zero as possible. Over 40% of the U.S. emission of greenhouse gasses is in the extraction, manufacture, transport and disposal of consumer items, so it is essential to reduce waste to the extent possible. More than just a theoretical concept, Zero Waste embodies a set of working principles starting to be applied in organizations and municipalities, and fits very well with Concord’s sustainability principles

How Concord could move toward Zero Waste was the subject of ConcordCAN’s Sustainable Concord Coffee this month, with three knowledgeable speakers: Caroline Dann, Municipal Assistance Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); Launa Zimmaro, a member of the Carlisle Household Recycling Committee and Project Facilitator for “Carlisle Grows Green”; and Rod Robison, Concord’s Recycling and Disposal Coordinator.

The three speakers, each from a different perspective, approached zero waste as both achievable and desirable. Ms. Dann set the stage with an inventory of materials collected in residential trash (paper [25%], organic matter [21%], plastics, construction and demolition debris, metals, electronics, and non-recyclable trash [10%]). Currently about 90% of what is discarded should not end up in the waste stream-this in a region where most people make some effort at recycling!

The DEP has banned recyclable materials (paper, metal, glass and plastic) from being included in residential trash, and, just recently, added 3 full-time inspectors to enforce the ban. The agency monitors the tonnage of residential waste as a figure of merit. Among nearby towns, Concord does better than average (between 0.5 and 1 ton annually per household) but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Composting of organic material was suggested as a reasonable focus point, as it can reduce the emission of methane from landfills and produce valuable input for gardening. Rod Robeson reported that Concord promotes composting in several ways, providing the “Earth Machine” and “New Age” composters that households can purchase and use, and a composting site at the Concord Landfill on Walden Street , where residents can leave compostable materials and take compost for home use. The compost is tested yearly with a bioassay, showing no evidence for herbicides or toxic compounds. The Walden St facility is open Saturdays 9-4 April to October.

Eliminating organic waste from the school cafeterias is one visible and high-impact goal, but has not had any real success in Concord as it has for example in the Acton-Boxborough district. Setting up such a program would require encouragement from outside, as well as teachers, staff and students to bring it about with continued effort over the long term.

Launa Zimmaro has been engaged in several such efforts in Carlisle, with mixed success. A former school principal, she worked with the Carlisle schools to begin a composting program in 2009, amounting to 240lbs/week of material being composted instead of hauled away. Students are involved throughout the process, including selling produce grown using the compost.

Among municipalities, Hamilton-Wenham has been the most successful Mass. proponent of Zero Waste, with organic material bins collected at the curbside, and an ultimate goal of zero discards to incineration or landfill. On a larger scale, San Francisco is committed to becoming a zero waste town by 2020, with a program that started in 1989, became mandatory in 2009, and reduced their waste by 80% by 2013. These inspiring examples show us what we could achieve as well.

Brad Hubbard-Nelson is a Concord resident and a member of the ConcordCAN! Steering Group.

Posted in environment.