Residents can soon expect an increase in the compost center’s hours of operation, in an effort to divert materials from the town’s waste stream and make recycling more accessible, according to David Manugian, Department of Public Works director.
Typically, the compost center on Carlisle Road is closed during the first quarter of the year. Recycling Coordinator Ed McGrath said that starting in April, the compost center will be open every Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
By expanding opportunities for drop-off at the center, the DPW hopes to mitigate the recent influx of recyclable materials in roadside carts, such as cardboard and paper, due to more people shopping online and receiving packages during the pandemic.
“We wanted to give people an overflow option,” Manugian said. “If the cardboard’s collecting, they can have an option so they don’t have to stuff it all in their recycling cart.”
Manugian said the town’s goal is to make the compost center “more accessible for residents to come by and drop off certain types of overflow recycling.” In the past, remote locations were set up for residents to drop off cardboard and other recyclables. Manugian said these remote drop-off sites became “unmanageable” because they’d often fill up or contain non-recyclable waste.
Special Collection Events ~ March 27 and April 17
The town also plans to begin holding special collection events more frequently, starting with the first of many from 9 am to noon on Saturday, March 27. Items in good condition will be accepted by Household Goods of Acton, a nonprofit organization that helps families in need to furnish their homes, said McGrath. Click this link for donation guidelines.
Editor’s Note: The Department of Public Works is postponing Saturday’s collection of scrap metal and tires until later this spring. The Compost Center will be open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for residents to drop off yard waste and cardboard.
These collection events, formerly held at the DPW building, now will take place at the Compost Center, because they’ve been deemed a safety issue, McGrath said. “When I first started, we were getting 250 cars,” he said. “The last [event] we did up here at the DPW on The Great Road, we got over 400 cars in three hours.”
The first special collection event at the compost center was held last October and McGrath called it a “phenomenal success.”
“The police closed us down at 11:15 because the traffic was backed up onto Carlisle Road all the way down to North Road, and I think up Winterberry Way, too,” he said. Due to the popularity of the event last October, McGrath said he ended up holding three more events that same month.
“What we learned was … when I do too many things, I get too many cars,” McGrath said, explaining how the special collection events this year will limit the materials accepted to certain days. “I used to do it all in one event … but it’s too much. Last fall, somebody told me they waited an hour in line just to get in.”
On April 17, the compost center will host an event dedicated solely to paper shredding.
Diverting Recyclables from the Incinerator
The goal of these events is to make recycling manageable and promote reuse, while also minimizing the amount of trash sent to the incinerator.
“This year, it costs us about $75 a ton to burn [waste],” McGrath said. Last year, the town collected more than 3,911 tons of curbside trash from residents and town buildings. At the current cost of incineration, the town would spend approximately $293,325 annually on trash disposal.
McGrath also said it’s important to keep recyclables separate from the waste stream because they’re resources. “The cardboard gets recycled into new cardboard boxes. The water bottles get recycled into new water bottles. It’s a raw material for somebody,” he explained.
By keeping certain materials separate from the waste stream and recycling as much as possible, Manugian hopes to minimize the amount of money spent on disposal and free up incinerator space. However, it still costs to recycle.
The town pays a processing fee of $111.39 for each ton of recycled material collected, sorted, and packaged for sale, Manugian said. In 2020, the town collected 1,521 tons of curbside recyclables from residents and town buildings, according to McGrath.
In January, a ton of recyclable material had an average value of $33.63, McGrath said. The value of recyclables gets subtracted from the processing fee, which means it cost the town an average of $77.76 to sort through one ton of recyclable materials in January. Still, he said, recycling reduces the amount of waste incinerated and keeps disposal costs down.
“Over the last three years, the overall cost [of recyclables] to the consumer … went from a net-positive amount to a significant cost,” Manugian said. In 2018, China stopped accepting low-grade recyclables, which impacted the value of each ton recycled. At one point, a ton of recyclable material was valued anywhere between $130 and $140. Last summer, the value of each ton recycled dropped to less than $10, Manugian said.
In the last four months, the value of recyclables has gone back up and is slowly beginning to balance out the cost of disposal again. Namely, recyclables have become more valuable for the town, so the town is “paying less to dispose of the recyclables” but not receiving any money in return, Manugian said.
Republic Services collects the town’s recycled materials, processes them, and then sells valuable materials, such as metal, for money, Manugian said. The materials that can’t be sold or reused are “landfilled” and cost the town money. According to McGrath, this is about 10 percent of each ton recycled.
Because incinerators are quickly reaching capacity, McGrath said there’s currently a Waste Ban in the state of Massachusetts. This means items such as cardboard, glass containers, and certain types of batteries are not allowed to be disposed of in the trash. (Read more about the state’s Waste Ban here.)
Manugian spoke about the importance of keeping food waste separate from the waste stream, in addition to recyclables. Since food is a relatively heavy waste material, “any time we take food waste out of the waste stream, that saves the town money,” Manugian said.
“The cost to dispose of materials in Massachusetts continues to rise, because you have two options,” he added, explaining how waste is either incinerated for power or buried in a landfill.
With landfills decreasing and incinerators quickly reaching maximum capacity, the price to dispose of these materials has increased. Because of this, Manugian said it’s cheaper to compost food waste, which is why some residents opt for food waste collection that’s separate from regularly scheduled trash and recycling pickups.
“Right now, the town doesn’t have a formal food waste program,” Manugian said. However, many residents have a contract with Black Earth, a curbside compost service that turns food waste into nutrient-rich soil.
Residents pay a “small” up-front fee to purchase a food waste collection bin and are then charged each month for a weekly collection, Manugian said. The more residents Black Earth serves, the cheaper the collection cost becomes. Back when Black Earth served fewer than 200 households, they charged each one $100 every six months. Now, Black Earth serves more than 200 households, charging each one $70 every six months.
“I think people consider recycling and diversion from the waste stream is important, and they’re willing to support their beliefs with their checkbooks,” Manugian said. “It’s really a philosophical interest in doing it.”
According to McGrath, 60 tons of food waste was diverted from the incinerator last year thanks to Black Earth’s curbside pickup. This saved the town roughly $4,500 on disposal fees.
Manugian said there is the possibility of integrating food waste collection into the town’s weekly trash and recycling pickup in the future since the collection contractor Republic Services does offer it.
“Where we would probably start is with municipal buildings, because that’s where we get the biggest bang for the buck,” Manugian said, explaining how schools and other town buildings generate a lot of food waste. The town was planning to begin a pilot program for food waste collection at schools starting last July, but that has been delayed due to Covid-19.
“Schools have been very cooperative, but the last year, given the Covid situation, they just didn’t have the bandwidth to take it on, which we completely understand,” Manugian said. “Covid is certainly getting better, so hopefully the second half of this year we’ll look at the option again.”