Through the Eyes of a Collector

Republic Services immediately won my heart when their General Manager, Kurt Lavery, emailed me back to let me know I was permitted to do a ride-along on one of their residential recycling routes in Watertown, MA. I showed up bright and early to Watertown DPW at a quarter til 7AM, where I was meeting, Johnny, a seasoned solid waste collector, who would be my host as he went through his typical daily routine collecting recycling. On his arrival, I climbed up into the cab of his diesel truck, and we were off to relieve Watertown of its recyclables.

The first thing I noticed was that the truck had an “automated” side loader that eliminated any chance I’d have to get out of the cab to do any shaking of peoples’ recycle bins. Oh well… I mean it was Boston’s coldest day thus far, and I was still getting my fix of recycling regardless. Johnny raved about the automated truck saying that it minimized the safety risk of getting hit by a passing car, and made collection much faster with less physical effort. Considering that those are huge issues for trash and recycling collectors, it makes a world of difference!

Still, I had to ask him if he was able to check whether people were recycling correctly with the new automated system? With manual collection, the “tosser” or “shaker” could do a quick audit of what people had thrown in their bin, and even write them a notice if there was too much contamination. Now, Johnny has to stop the flow of his route to exit the cab and check on what’s inside a resident’s recycle bin to gauge contamination levels. He rarely does this. Still, over the ten years that he’s been collecting Watertown’s recycling, he’s identified a few houses that are the top suspects for not properly recycling. Only at these specific locations will he go to the trouble of getting out and checking. Also, on the new automated truck, there is a camera installed that oversees what is dumped into the truck’s back receptacle. This gives the driver an idea, but the picture quality is fairly grainy, and by the time the material passes it’s already too late.

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In Watertown, recycling collection is every-other week unlike Boston or Cambridge, who maintain a weekly schedule. Consequentially, Watertown runs a recycle center twice a week operated by Republic (the same company that’s contracted to haul their garbage and recycling), so whether there is any taxpayer savings still remains in question. The recycle center receives an influx every week from people who generate too much recycling to adhere to the city’s bi-weekly schedule. Johnny thinks the city’s residents deserve weekly recycling pickup, because it would better suit the town’s demand. This could eliminate many of the functions that the recycle center serves, and encourage more recycling. Also, there is some concern that residents, when they run out of room in their recycle bin, end up tossing the leftover recyclables in the trash bin. It makes sense, and I did notice that about one quarter of recycle bins along our route were above capacity brimming with material.

Cambridge is an example of a municipality that operates a recycle center, weekly recycling collection, a curbside compost program, along with a Styrofoam ban and Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance to reduce plastic bag usage at retailers. They are leading Bay State municipalities in sustainable programs and waste diversion by far. Still,  it’s important to remember that this is Cambridge we’re talking about…not Watertown. It’s not an apples to apples comparison. Watertown is a blue collar Boston-suburb with a large number of “handyman” contractors working independently for themselves, and where people raise their kids in the traditional American home; big yard, driveway, etc.. Overall, a municipality’s recycling program reflects their residents’ interest in recycling. Currently, it doesn’t seem that sustainable material management or waste reduction is a top priority in Watertown. Therefore, there is no motivation to change. You can’t force new programs, bans, and ordinances on people who aren’t inclined to agree with their aim. Otherwise, you just garner resentment from the population you are trying to serve. Even if the momentum behind waste reduction may be growing overall, Watertown isn’t ready yet.

After my ride-along, I can confirm that there is no magic genie that makes your recycling disappear off the face of the earth into the unknown. Instead, when Johnny’s truck is full, he takes it to Casella’s MRF in Charlestown, (read here for a detailed explanation of recycling’s next stage at Casella) where they sort and process the recyclables, preparing them to be shipped abroad for their next life.

Thank you to Republic Services, Shane Reed, and Johnny for giving me this experience and insight into recycling!

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