Boston announces city’s zero-waste plan

Boston announces city’s zero-waste plan

Boston plans to bolster its current recycling rate from approximately 25 percent to 80 percent by 2035.


Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced the city's first zero-waste plan June 18. The recommendations include 30 near- and long-term strategies for reducing both consumption of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions. Key parts of the plan include expanding Boston’s composting program, increasing access to recycling opportunities and launching a citywide education campaign on recycling.

By implementing the strategies over time, Boston hopes to reduce the amount of trash generated and increase recycling and composting by about 638,000 tons per year. One of the goals of the program is to bolster Boston’s current recycling rate from approximately 25 percent to 80 percent by 2035. Approximately six percent of Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the city’s discarded materials. By reducing waste, recycling more and composting, the city aims to reduce emissions associated with waste and move closer to its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

“Preparing Boston for climate change means ensuring our city is sustainable, both now and in the future,” Walsh says. “We need to lead and design city policies that work for our residents and for the environment and world we depend upon. These initiatives will lead Boston towards becoming a zero-waste city [and will help the city] invest in the future of residents and generations to come.”

The new initiatives are included in a set of recommendations by the Zero Waste Boston Advisory Committee that was appointed by Walsh last year. The committee, led jointly by the chief of Streets, Transportation & Sanitation and the chief of Environment, Energy & Open Space, was tasked with developing recommendations of short- and long-term policies and programs that would lead to major reductions of solid waste in all sectors of the Boston community. The committee was supported by staff from the Public Works and Environment Departments and a team of experts including Perlmutter Associates, Twinsburg, Ohio; Zero Waste Associates, San Diego; and the Center for EcoTechnology, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

“We’re devoting significant resources to achieve both our short- and long-term goals and ensure our city is more sustainable for decades to come,” Chief of Streets and Zero Waste co-chair Chris Osgood says. “By implementing these recommendations, there is no doubt that Boston can achieve the ultimate goal of becoming a zero-waste city.”

"By implementing Boston’s first zero-waste plan, we will be a healthier and greener city for future generations to come,” City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who is also the chairman of the council's Environment, Sustainability and Parks Committee, says. “I am proud to have spearheaded the council’s efforts to institute curbside composting and textile recycling programs in the city of Boston, and I look forward to seeing these programs develop even further. I want to thank Mayor Walsh for his leadership on this issue and his steadfast commitment to keeping Boston a leader on all environmental matters facing cities across the world. Expanding Boston’s composting program will be transformative in improving the city’s recycling rate, reducing our waste and greenhouse gas emissions while working toward carbon neutrality.”

“Healthy communities and a healthy environment are critical to the health and wellness of every person. We are excited about the health, economic, social and environmental opportunities and impact the zero-waste plan will bring to the city of Boston, the Commonwealth, and the greater New England region,” Monica Nakielski, director of sustainability and environmental health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Nakielski is also a member of the Zero Waste Advisory Committee.

Currently, Boston residents and businesses generate roughly 1.2 million tons of materials annually, where 25 percent is reused, recycled or composted and 75 percent is disposed in incinerators or landfills. The Zero Waste Committee recommended 30 overall strategies within four core categories to increase composting, recycling and reuse.

Increasing composting

Approximately 36 percent of what is currently thrown away as trash in the city is compostable materials—either yard waste such as leaves and grass clippings or food scraps. Diverting compostable materials out of the trash is a top priority for the zero-waste plan.

Following the recommendations in the report, the city will extend the current residential yard waste collection service from 17 weeks during the April to December period to 20 weeks. To provide residents with even more options, there will be at least 20 weekend days when residents can drop off yard waste at one of Boston’s composting facilities at no cost. Some of the compost generated from that yard waste will be provided at no cost to Boston’s community gardens; other compost will be available for sale to Boston residents at a reduced price.

In addition to expanding yard waste collection, the city will pilot curbside collection of food waste from residents. The city will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to identify a local partner or partners to provide this service for a subscription cost, with a portion of that cost covered by the city. That partnership is set to begin this fall.

Recycle more, recycle right

Roughly 39 percent of what is thrown away as trash is recyclable, according to the city. The city will take several steps to expand recycling both at home and in public.

The city will soon release a new Request for Proposals (RFP) to identify local partners to educate and encourage Boston residents to recycle textiles, such as clothing and linens, through a free curbside service. The partnership is set to begin this fall.

Additionally, earlier this year, Boston was selected as one of seven U.S. communities to receive a $250,000 grant for a community recycling pilot program from The Coca-Cola Foundation. This grant will support the Fund for Parks and Recreation in Boston and build on the city’s ongoing efforts to improve access to recycling and encourage better recycling behaviors. The pilot program will bring recycling bins, signage and collection services to city parks to further expand the reach of recycling services in areas with high foot traffic.

The city also recently launched a new citywide education campaign called Recycle Right, which is informed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) education campaign efforts. This initiative focuses on placing the proper materials in the recycling bin and separating “problem materials” that cause contamination and drive up the cost of recycling. New signage and online materials will help residents better understand what items can and can’t be recycled and highlight where and when household hazardous waste drop-off events are being held.

Reduce and reuse

Reducing the creation of materials that wind up being discarded in the first place is also a top priority recommended by the Zero Waste Advisory Commission.

Last December, the city rolled out its new ordinance to eliminate single-use plastic bags in Boston. Plastic bags often end up in the city’s streets and gutters, vacant lots, and trees; however, they’re harmful to marine life and pollute the city’s waterways. The city encourages all customers to switch to reusable bags, which can be used time and again without tossing them in the trash.

In the fiscal year 2020 budget, the city is investing $175,000 to build on the success of the plastic bag ban and implement strategies identified in the new report. The Environment and Public Works Departments will work together to increase behavior change for residential waste and to improve the quality of residents’ recycling efforts.

Inspiring innovation

Achieving zero waste will require further product, technology and business model innovation.

Boston is taking steps to spark innovation and strengthen the local economy focused on this industry. In addition to the new requests for proposals for residential composting and textiles, the city will seek information from interested parties for a potential large-scale program that would reduce the amount of food and yard waste that residents currently dispose of in their curbside collection. The Request for Information (RFI) aims to identify solutions that would increase the city’s composting services and expand local or regional composting capacity.

The city of Boston also encourages residents to utilize tools like the city’s free “Trash Day” app. The app enables Boston residents to search a directory of hundreds of household items to find out the right way to dispose of them while on the go or at home. App users can also view a calendar for their home’s collection dates, set reminders and get notifications of schedule changes.

Completing a zero-waste plan marks a milestone in Walsh’s work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was one of the actions called out in Boston’s 2014 Climate Action Plan. The climate plan, which is currently being updated, will soon provide next steps for Boston to take to become carbon neutral by 2050. While reducing emissions, the city is working to prepare for sea level rising and the impacts of climate change. Resilient Boston Harbor is the city’s vision plan to strengthen Boston’s 47-mile shoreline through expanded and connected green space. The city has already completed segments of the vision through district-level projects in East BostonCharlestown, and South Boston, and is currently working on climate resiliency measures for Downtown and Dorchester.