There are some professions that attract the creative types. Musicians, writers, artists, maybe an occasional accountant come to mind. One place you don’t necessarily expect to find a creative type is in the Department of Public Works as the town’s Recycling Coordinator. To an outsider the job seems simple enough, to paraphrase a commercial, “you pick stuff up – you drop it off.” That is a gross mischaracterization of what the job entails.
Recycling is an incredibly complex undertaking. For most people recycling ends when you put your materials in the bin. When I first met Ed McGrath he described how the whole recycling industry could be summed up with just a big dollar sign. What you collect and where the material goes all comes down to money.
The recycling industry has changed tremendously in the past few years. Not long ago China would take all our recyclable material and sort it and reclaim the raw materials. A few years ago China stopped taking our recyclables and that has thrown the whole industry in turmoil. Where the material you put in your bin goes now is not an insubstantial undertaking.
The most cost-effective way to recycle is to find a place for recyclables before they ever get to the blue bin. The ability to divert materials is a skill. Ed is constantly searching for solutions on how to divert material.
A good example is the recent addition of the “Glass Bin” up at the Carlisle Road compost center. I asked Ed why it was needed. I always thought glass in the blue bin was fine. Glass in the blue bin is recyclable although the town is charged to do this. Ed found a landfill in New Hampshire that has a need for “clean” glass as a way to cap a landfill. The town has a contract with this landfill and they will take all the glass for free. Glass is heavy and the ability to remove it from the waste stream is a big cost saving.
Another initiative started by Ed was to have Household Goods of Acton come to Bedford. Household Goods collects gently used items to help people who need a hand to get started. Working with the First Congregational Church they have organized an effort to collect and hold household goods until it makes sense for the company to send a truck. The idea moving forward is to have more of these collection days with “themes.” An example would be “Kitchen Items” on a particular day, to collect plates, knives, pots and pans, etc. These narrowly focused events are an effort to help with the logistics. The details are still being worked out, so stay tuned.
The town is also working with Black Earth, a curbside composting company. With any curbside collection idea, it only makes sense if you reach a critical mass. For a couple of years, there has been an active group of composters already in town. Ed reached out to Black Earth to learn how more residents might be able to sign up. Through a grant from MASSDEP (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection), the town is covering some of the startup fees for residents who sign up for their curbside composting plan. Last year Black Earth Composting removed 60 tons of food waste from the Bedford waste stream, saving the town a substantial amount of money.
The MASSDEP grant has its own story. The DEP has what amounts to a rewards program. The state has various benchmarks to encourage various recycling and other initiatives. The program works a little like a credit card reward system: you earn points for various activities. The town can then redeem those points for money to use in new programs. That is how the Black Earth setup grant was paid for.
I reached out to Conor at Black Earth about their work in Bedford “We currently have 265 subscribers in Bedford paying $69.99/6 month term of weekly pickups. When we get to 600, we will drop the price to $49.99/6 months. Each household produces about 600 lbs/year of food waste on average. So currently we have a run rate of 80 tons/year, but we expect that to keep growing so maybe Bedford residents will divert 100 tons in 2021.”
Taking 100 tons of waste out of the stream is a big saving. Conor made another point, “One thing to keep in mind is the food waste diversion is the first half of the story, but the second half is always the buried lead. We need to restore soil quality. When soil is in great shape, then it grows and supports life; it pulls CO2 out of the air and sequesters it more than anything else, produces higher quality food, higher quality air, better health. So many of our climate/health/economic challenges relate to the degradation of our soil, and it’s hardly ever mentioned.”
Ed has another idea, currently in its planning stage, to work with a company that can recycle mattresses. Mattresses are expensive to dispose of and are almost completely recyclable if you’re set up to do it. A company in Lowell is doing this already. The hard part is how to take mattresses out of the waste stream and get them to Lowell. Stay tuned for details. In the last three years, Bedford averaged 575 mattress and box spring sets to be disposed of.
Another big part of Ed’s job is educating the public about proper recycling. “Recycling” things that are not supposed to go into the blue bin is a big problem. Often just a few items can cause a whole lot to be rejected.
Recycling has an emotional component to it that needs to be accounted for. For generations, people have been taught that recycling is good, and needs to be encouraged at all costs. One of the results is a phenomenon called “Wishcycling.” People feel better about pulling out materials and putting them in their blue bin. Often people put materials in the blue bin that they “hope” can be recycled. What can and cannot be recycled really depends on what the market for the material is, and the logistics to getting it to where it needs to go.
A great illustration of the problem is what to do with the old grey Bedford recycling bins. Ed says he found a great place to recycle all those bins. The problem is the plant that will take them is in Louisiana, and it just doesn’t make economic sense to ship them that far. (If you have a use for those old bins, let Ed know, they have plenty).
As Ed explains, the market for recycled material is constantly changing and is based on many different factors. Having to sort “good” recycles versus bad recyclables is an expensive undertaking.
Education is the key and a big part of Ed’s job is educating people. Ed jokes, “I wish I could get one of those memory zappers they had in the movie Men in Black, and wipe all the things people have learned in the past.” What many people learned in the past does not apply to today’s recycling.
Ed has been the Bedford Recycling Coordinator for the past six years. He received his BA from UNH and MBA from Northeastern University. Long before he came to Bedford he was a sportswriter for a local New Hampshire paper, then he moved to the Sports Information Office of Boston University. After BU he moved on to NYNEX where one of his assignments was to find a way to recycle the old NYNEX Yellow pages. That was his introduction to his current career.
Ed is at the recycling/compost center on Wednesdays. Bring your cardboard, bring your yard waste, bring your glass, and stop in to say hi.