With a robust waste diversion program, expanding curbside organics collection, and effective education campaigns that result in lower contamination rates, the City of Cambridge’s Department of Public Works has adopted a successful Zero Waste Plan that is hitting a stride and will soon include process and policy changes to sustain and maximize the value of each of the new program offerings.
Home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the City of Cambridge, MA hosts a continuously changing, dynamic population that makes the Department of Public Works (DPW) an important entity in handling waste collection for the residents and businesses in this historic city. Located across the river from Boston, the City of Cambridge currently offers residential curbside recycling, as well as trash, organics, and yard waste collection. The city also has curbside collection services for mattresses, textiles, appliances, TVs, and large metal items. While some of the collection services are provided by outside contractors, the DPW crew does pick up for about 65 percent of its 115,000 residents and 200 small businesses for recycling and organics.
Zero Waste Master Plan
The path to creating a robust waste diversion program began in 2018 when the city adopted a Zero Waste Master Plan. The primary goal was to reduce trash 30 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, with 2008 as a baseline. The city implemented 10 actions from the Plan between 2018 and 2022:
1. Expand Curbside Organics Collection to residents (up to 12-unit buildings)
2. Begin Small Business Recycle Pilot
3. Begin Mattress Recycling Program
4. Improve recycling through Recycle Right campaign
5. Expand Curbside Compost to buildings with 13 units or more
6. Expand Small Business Recycle Program
7. Start Small Business Compost Pilot
8. Start Textiles Recovery Program
9. Launch Standard Trash Carts
10. Expand Small Business Compost Pilot
“Some of the goals were concurrent, such as the Recycle Right campaign that took about a year to reduce contamination to four percent. It took commitments from many of the property managers, tagging the bins, and several other tests to get that in motion,” says Michael Orr, Recycling Director for the City of Cambridge DPW. “Other things were easier like the small business recycling program. We had a sign-up sheet for applicants and 100 or more small businesses excited to receive the free service. In less than three months, it was up and running. All of these programs are a team effort.”
With regards to the organics program, the DPW had a curbside collection pilot in 2014 and 2015 for a smaller portion of the city, which was successful. Then, in 2018, the program was implemented citywide because the City was really interested in extending its reach, and residents wanted the program in their neighborhood. Says Orr, “We also saw that the cost disposal for trash was going to keep going up and stay high, so we wanted to get ahead of that challenge.” He comments that the organics program is one of the most successful programs. “We offer drop off for food waste at six sites—all are accessible 24/7. We have school composting at all K-12 schools. In 2021, we started a curbside organics collection program for 75 food businesses in the city. Through the combination of all of these programs and the more than 30,000 households we serve curbside, we are collecting eight tons per day, and we are actively looking to scale things up. The service and a starter kit (curbside cart and kitchen bin with compostable bags) are free and the city provides collection weekly along with recycling, yard waste, and trash.” Food waste from the organics program is sent to WM CORe in Charlestown to remove contaminants. The tip fee for organics is 30 percent and 40 percent lower than both recycling and trash, respectively. After pre-processing, organics are anaerobically digested at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District.
At the beginning of the curbside organics program, the City encouraged participation by explaining the importance of removing food from the trash for environmental and cost savings purposes. Now with buy-in from early adopters, one of the main ways the DPW is encouraging curbside organics is detailing the importance of keeping food away from rodents. Cambridge is #25 on population density in the U.S.—just behind San Francisco, CA. Rodent activity is a common complaint. In Spring 2022, the City found that 45 percent of residents’ trash barrels had holes due to rodents. Later in 2022, the City swapped all resident-provided trash bins with city-issued trash carts. This helped address rodent concerns in the short term. However, DPW strongly advertised participating in the voluntary organics program because each organics cart comes with a latch or lock to deter rodents more effectively than a trash cart, as trash carts can still be accessed if residents overfill them. “By having this organics program, we were able to provide better rodent control than a new trash cart can offer,” said Orr. “This is the best way to market an organics program to the masses due to the overwhelming desire to combat rodent issues.” While the program rollout and implementation required an investment, it will pay dividends year-over-year. Now, we are able to promote the organics program as a cost savings to the City, a benefit to the environment, and a rodent control program. How often can a municipality have a program that is a win-win-win.”
Another one of the City’s best successes is the effort to reduce recycling contamination. DPW spent a year on their Recycle Right campaign to reduce contamination in collection bins. Orr explains that the DPW would have to pay a higher tipping fee if the contamination rate goes above five percent, so they committed to re-educating the population about what should be placed in the bins. In 2018, the contamination rate was 11 percent. After an exhaustive campaign, which included bin tagging, postcards, and outreach to property managers and residents, the City was able to reduce contamination to four percent by 2020. As a result of this decrease, the City has been able to reduce recycling tip fees by $90,000 per year. As of 2022, the city has reduced trash by 32 percent (with 2008 as a baseline). “We have a really strong built-in reinforcement system to keep us at a low rate and we are always thinking of ways to keep people on the right track to make sure we don’t fall too far away from the 4 percent,” continued Orr. “We have a search tool where people can look up how to get rid of unwanted items, we send out monthly e-mail newsletters to almost 10,000 subscribers, and we also work with the local property managers since a majority of our housing is multi-family.” Cambridge is unique in that it is home to four colleges, including Harvard and MIT. Due to the large number of young professionals and students, the city has an annual turnover rate of approximately 20 percent. To maintain waste diversion programs, the City has extensive programs to educate and re-educate residents. DPW also focuses on educating property managers because this is the most powerful way to get the message through since they are the ones that are seeing the turnover and trends.
“Cambridge is not a very static city. Cambridge is near Boston and there are many universities that are close together, so you have the spillover effect from those schools—there are a lot of people moving around. Furthermore, we have a large commercial district, so people commute from their respective hometowns to Cambridge and then go home at night. And people visit Cambridge from all over the world. We will hear from people who moved to Cambridge for a job or grad school and their home has vastly different waste management programs,” says Orr.
Mattresses and Textiles
As for mattress recycling, the DPW worked with a vendor that had already partnered with nearby cities. In 2019, DPW received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. At the time, the DPW thought mattress collection was going statewide, so they elected to get a head start and separate the items ahead of the forthcoming changes. With the grant, the DPW was able to pay for a portion of the program. They currently conduct curbside mattress collection on a consistent basis.
For textiles, Cambridge looked to the city of Boston who had hired a company called HELPSY to collect textiles, both curbside and at drop-off bins. “In following up with representatives from Boston, the collaboration has gone well for them, and while we looked at a couple of vendors, we determined that HELPSY was the best partner for our City. We launched the program in 2021 and educated the community about how to participate. HELPSY collects unwanted items and takes them to one of their warehouses, where they sort the commodities and find markets for them,” says Orr. “We also have a contract with Routeware’s ReCollect system where residents can easily sign up for a free textiles curbside pick-up. This system is also used to schedule mattress collections. We collected about 160 tons of textiles in 2022 and we are hoping to collect another 200 tons in 2023. By integrating a lot of our services into the ReCollect software, we are able to increase engagement/education, reduce customer service calls, and make it easier for residents to sort their waste properly.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Orr says that it definitely put a strain on staffing internally and keeping people safe and comfortable. “There were a lot of moving pieces involved. It was a difficult time, but within the last year, we have not felt the impact as much, so we are making up for lost time and aggressively trying to reduce our trash numbers.”
One of the hardest things that the DPW had to deal with during COVID was the need to suspend organics collection for about 15 months. “While we were unable to run the collection program during that time, we did encourage people to continue using their organics bins in order to maintain the rodent control. It was a major hiccup; we lost a lot of momentum, but we have gained all that loss back and we now have a stronger organics program than before COVID,” says Orr proudly. Although curbside collection was unavailable, the DPW did have drop-off composting sites open during COVID. “We try to make it relatively accessible. We added two temporary locations to the four already existing locations where people could drop off food scraps. There were some people in the community that were really excited about it. One young person in the community set up a service for his neighborhood where he would bike around and pick up other people’s food waste and take it to a drop-off location to avoid having it go to the trash.”
The DPW has a very active recycling advisory committee consisting of residents, university representatives, industry experts, and community members who are all passionate about waste reduction, organics, recycling, etc. The Committee also features diversity in age, gender, and race. “By having a diverse and passionate advisory committee, we are able to have a substantially more impactful program. When our advisory committee goes to community events with indoor kitchen food scrap bins, they find so little opposition to the program because our community knows that it’s the right thing to do and it’s great that residents can see their friend or neighbor promoting the program! While residents can visit our website and request organics, recycling, or other supplies to be delivered to their home for free, it’s not as impactful as showing up at a big community event and talking to people one-on-one about their questions and concerns. In addition, we host our own events. For instance, we distribute finished compost from the yard waste that residents set-out for collection. The event is held in the spring so people can take it home and start their own garden,” says Orr. Another popular tool is the use of Buy Nothing Cambridge Facebook groups. “Because we have a lot of turnover, there is a consistent need to dispose of or acquire furniture, bedding, kitchenware, and more. Because many residents don’t have cars, and the City doesn’t have the capacity for a swap shed, swapping goods online is a popular resource.” More than 14,000 residents are in Buy Nothing groups in Cambridge exchanging hundreds of items each week. This reduces disposal costs and saves people money by not buying new.
With the development of the Zero Waste Master Plan taking place five years ago, the city is planning an update to the Plan. Since the first iteration included several new programs and services, the next version is expected to include process and policy changes to sustain and maximize the value of each of the new program offerings. For example, the City conducted a waste characterization in 2022 and found that 55 percent of what is in residents’ trash carts are divertible items, including recyclables, compostables, and textiles, metal, or e-waste. “We are thinking that over the next five years, we are going to focus on how to maximize each of the programs we offer. For instance, maybe we will develop a policy that says every property manager must submit an annual waste management plan,” explains Orr. “The other policy we are working on is organics collection. We know the benefits of the organics program are real: rodent control, lower tip fees, and reduced environmental impact. If we are going to continue to offer and pay for the program, and we have five years under our belt, maybe it is time that we consider making it mandatory because we want to maximize the value of the collection system we have right now.”
Orr is excited that the DPW is hitting a stride with informing people of the benefits of participating in some of these exciting programs. The DPW explains the benefits of programs from the residents’ viewpoint to get buy-in, which gives people the power to make the decision about whether they will participate. “We don’t go in with a heavy hand, but with a lighter approach. Just having conversations can be a powerful way to get people on board.” | WA