Towns sort out their garbage problem. Wellesley, Mass. - The value of disciplined recycling

Two years ago George Barry, manager of this town's ``dump,'' left work early. He drove across town to deliver a set of small desktop drawers to an address he'd found inside. The woman who answered the door was horrified when shown the contents. She had inadvertently thrown away $8,700 of negotiable bonds.

Mr. Barry tells the tale to illustrate some of the unexpected bonuses that disciplined recycling has for this community. If, in fact, ``the dump'' had been only the landfill the term implies, the bonds would have been buried under tons of other waste and capped with soil long before their loss was noticed.

Wellesley, a wealthy town of largely college-educated professionals on the outskirts of Boston, has been recycling since 1971. When landfill was the preferred, if not the only, way to treat solid waste in this country, Wellesley converted the site around its defunct incinerator into a ``Municipal Recycling and Disposal Facility'' - its official title.

The town was ahead of the times, a fact that enabled it to become a model that many now follow. In the words of Barbara Mudd, director of a recycling group from nearby Concord, Mass.: ``It's the prototype of what we are trying to become.''

As landfill options diminish and America's solid-waste crisis grows, Wellesley's effective program has drawn increasing numbers of visitors from around the country, along with overseas contingents from Britain, Israel, Argentina, and Japan.

What these visitors find is something quite remarkable for a solid-waste treatment operation. The surrounding area is landscaped and parklike. It even contains picnic tables. Lady-slippers bloom in season, and people gather mushrooms and dandelion greens in the spring.

It's also something of a haven for wildlife. ``We've seen deer, fox, raccoons, skunk, a red-tailed hawk, geese, and pheasants, even a killdeer,'' says Barry.

Townsfolk regularly bring visitors on a tour of the place. At least one going-away party has been held there for a departing resident, because the dump ``epitomizes Wellesley'' as much as anything.

Some 3,000 cars move in and out of the center on an average Saturday, a fact not lost on Girl Scouts, come cookie-selling time. Would-be selectmen campaign there at election time. Should a Wellesley resident ever run for president, many feel there's a better-than-even chance that he or she would announce at the dump.

A key component in the Wellesley recycling program is the ``take it or leave it'' section, where residents drop off any unwanted item that someone else might find useful - a portable typewriter, for example, that someone no longer needs after mastering the new word processor. But it could be anything from dimensional lumber taken from a demolished shed to a lawn mower that needs only a new spark plug to get it going again. So many reusable toys are left off that one father likened visiting the dump to ``going to Child World without having to pay.''

``We've had just about everything left here including autos,'' Barry says, and on one occasion, ``a canopied bed!'' He says airplanes are the ``lone exception.'' It was in this section that the negotiable bonds were discovered.

Barry explains: ``If an item isn't picked up after a few days, we examine it to see if it's worth keeping - or junking.'' In inspecting these particular drawers, he found the bonds. On another occasion a costly watch was discovered in a piece of furniture. It, too, was returned to a startled owner.

When a local buyer of Wellesley's scrap paper declared that books were a contaminant because of the glue and bindings they contained, the Department of Public Works made space for a book exchange as well. It's another popular stopping-off spot for residents. Some treat it as a library - taking a book, reading it, and then returning it. Collectors seeking out-of-print ``gems'' are there as well. One man, who collects the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, turned up one day to find eight volumes there. ``He was ecstatic,'' says Virginia Thompson, a volunteer sometimes known as ``the dump librarian.''

For the rest, clearly marked dumpsters make it relatively simple for residents to drop off waste in more than a dozen categories: from mixed paper through aluminum foil, glass, and plastic bottles, to auto tires and batteries. Leaves, lawn clippings, and other yard waste are dropped off at the composting site.

Final figures have still to come in for the fiscal year that ended June 30. But all this effort on the part of individual Wellesley residents (82 percent now recycle, according to the most recent survey) will probably have saved the town some $262,000 - both through sales of salvaged materials and avoided landfill costs. Some $45,000 in recycling expenses, including an ongoing education program, would leave a net gain to the town of around $217,000.

The recycling expenses will rise dramatically in 1990, however, according to M.R. (Pat) Berdan, director of public works, when the Plainville, Mass., landfill no longer accepts Wellesley's waste. The town will then have to turn to more distant dump sites. Disposal costs are then likely to be in the region of $150 a ton - three times the present figure.

At that stage the town dump sign will become far more meaningful: ``SAVE TAX DOLLARS. RECYCLE.''

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