Ann Hermes/Staff
Recycling bins are set out for pickup on the street in Boston, Mass.

Boston's bid for zero waste: when less really is more

Mayor Marty Walsh's push to eliminate the Boston's net trash output is a key component of the city's goal to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Boston has big plans for its trash.

In May, Mayor Marty Walsh took the first step toward making Boston a zero waste city, calling for proposals to eliminate the city's net trash output entirely.

“In Boston we’ve been leaders in sustainability for many years now,” says Austin Blackmon, the city's chief of environment, energy and open space, who jointly leads the city’s Zero Waste Advisory Committee. “But as far as the progress we have made on zero waste, we haven't done as much.”

Nationwide, more than more than 65 percent of the 258 million tons of trash generated annually is recyclable, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nationally, only 35 percent gets recycled. And in Boston that rate is even lower, at 24 percent.

Landfill diversion promises big benefits for communities and the environment, advocates say. Where cities have to pay to dispose of trash in landfills, they can instead sell recyclable materials for a profit. And less trash rotting in municipal dumps also means less air and water pollution.

“We’re excited to move forward with zero waste, which is not only good for our environment and the health of our residents,” says Mr. Walsh, “but also has substantial economic benefits in cost savings for the city and in creating good local green jobs.”

‘Cities are taking the lead’

Boston can learn from the trials and errors of other US cities who have already adopted zero waste goals, such as Minneapolis; Oakland, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; San Diego; Los Angeles; New York; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco. City-level solutions are likely to become more prevalent as the Trump administration backs away from Obama-era environmental regulations and commitments, such as the Paris accord.

In the wake of President Trump’s declared intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris global climate accord, some 300 US mayors committed to “adopt, honor, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement.” Boston was one of the first cities to sign onto the commitment, followed by not just the usual suspects along the East and West Coasts, but also numerous towns and cities throughout conservative America.

“Regardless what is happening at the national or international level, you have seen post-Copenhagen and post-Paris, cities are really driving the sustainability initiatives,” says Mr. Blackmon of Boston’s Zero Waste Advisory Committee. “Cities are taking the lead.”

When it comes to zero waste initiatives, San Francisco is leading the way. After reaching California’s mandated 50 percent landfill diversion rate by 2000, and a record-setting 80 percent rate in 2012, San Francisco aims to be free of trash by 2020.

Guillermo Rodriguez, the policy and communications director for the San Francisco Department of Environment, says there is no “silver bullet” to achieve large scale waste reductions – it takes “lots of little things” from policy initiatives to public awareness campaigns. However, he says Boston can look forward to an indirect benefit of these efforts: community.

“In San Francisco, zero waste has become a core value of the city,” says Mr. Rodriguez. From business executives to local residents, “It is this one rallying cry we [all] have.”

Seeing opportunity in the challenge

The benefits of local waste diversion efforts are likely to reach far beyond city limits. Landfills are the third-largest source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat. The US has already reduced methane emissions substantially in recent years due to landfill diversion efforts. Between 1990 and 2014, the amount of trash sent to landfills decreased by 21 percent, leading to an almost 18 percent decrease in landfill methane emissions, according to the EPA.

Like San Francisco, a zero waste program in Boston has value beyond numbers, says Alex Papali, a co-coordinator of Zero Waste Boston.

“Zero waste programs offer a way for people to make a difference in their community,” says Mr. Papali. And unlike other sustainable initiatives that require a certain economic standing or understanding of technical issues, zero waste “is easy to access, it is mainly a behavior shift.”

Becoming a zero waste city is an important part of Boston’s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the city faces some Beantown-specific challenges. For one thing, Boston is home to nearly 160,000 students, many of whom have permanent residency elsewhere. That may complicate habit-shifting programming. And with 60 percent of Boston residents renting apartments, Pay-As-You-Throw programs may be difficult to implement.

The city’s age may also play a factor. Founded in 1630, Boston is one of the nation’s oldest cities, with some of the oldest infrastructure. It will be difficult for residents to fit trash, recycling, and compost bins on the city’s narrow sidewalks while still meeting safety codes.

“The whole point of this project is to see those not as challenges, but also as an opportunity,” says Blackmon. “We want to show that despite challenges [zero waste] is still possible.”

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the mayor's recent expansion of the city's greenhouse gas reduction goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The amount of annual trash generation has also been corrected.]

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