Food Collection in Hamilton (MA)

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  • Community: Hamilton, MA
  • Population: 7,800
  • Urban, suburban or rural: mixed suburban/rural
  • Median household income: $72,000
  • Roadside pickup/Drop-off: roadside pickup
  • Started: 2006
  • Payment: included in taxes, plus Pay-As-You-Throw
  • Mandatory: no

Hamilton, a north-shore Massachusetts town, is small enough (just under 7,800) that it shares a library, schools, and a chapter of the League of Women Voters with neighboring Wenham.

In 2004, the League became interested in the idea of pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) as a way for the town governments to create an incentive for recycling and save money. When the League’s study indicated savings for the local budgets, selectmen appointed a joint recycling committee.

The sparkplug for the League’s interest was Gretel Clark, a Hamilton resident and chair of the Hamilton Recycling Committee, who helped shepherd a “household waste reduction program” into town, which allowed households one 33-gallon container of solid waste a week with the cost covered by property taxes. Any more waste than that and you have to buy a special “blue bag” for $1.75—but you can recycle as much as you want.

Cost analysis: Proven reductions in MSW

In the first year of operation, Hamilton recorded an $110,000 savings and revenue gain from reduced solid-waste tipping fees and sales of blue “overage” bags. But more importantly, Clark points out, the recycling rate went from 24 to 34 percent.

With proof that recycling saved money, Clark focused on food waste as an untapped way of increasing recycling that could have a major impact on solid waste tonnage. She helped organize a two-month trial curbside food waste program for 74 residents.

After the two-month pilot showed a reduction in solid waste of between 33 and 50 percent, the selectmen ordered another pilot of 500 residents for a full year before they would contribute town money. The volunteer committees knew from surveys that residents were willing to pay as much as $120 a year for the opportunity; they calculated that if the 500 households each paid $75 it would cover the costs of hauling and tipping fees. They also had applied to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a grant to cover the $15,000 bill for green roadside bins.

The project suffered two setbacks. First, the DEP grant did not come through; then only 350 paying participants signed up. A combination of donations, a DEP grant of $7000 from EPA money designated for keeping organics out of landfills, and an agreement with the town to fund a six-month short fall in hauling fees, and the project went forward. And the volunteers continued to solicit paying participants, eventually signing up 631.

Get people thinking

Clark believes the results of the second pilot were predictable. “One of the things that we’ve discovered in the trash world is that, when you start working with communities and trash, people take huge pride in their trash and how to handle it. There are very few who just say ‘chuck it’,” she says. “Once you get them thinking about it, they are very meticulous about how they do it.” So when the effort of those 500 participants showed an average weekly reduction in solid waste of more than 10 pounds, she wasn’t surprised.

“We told people that if they did it right, they would never have to buy a blue overage bag again,” she says. And with another successful trial in the books, the towns took over the program for the 500 residents and began planning for a town-wide rollout in 2012. One of the lingering concerns, however, was the cost of hauling. But when a local hauler came forward with a plan to collect both food scraps and other recycling in a single weekly run for a price the town couldn’t refuse, the selectmen decided to move forward.

And at the rate of $40 a ton for solid waste tipping, the program saved money as it got people involved. Everyone who participated got a green Orvis curbside composting bin for their organics along with a counter top collector. And, Clark says, “we picked that up every week and we also picked up recyclables every week.”

Weekly pickup is an incentive

“But,” she notes, “here’s the kicker: we would only pick up your solid waste every other week. So what this meant was if you weren’t going to use your compost bin, you’d have that stinky stuff sitting around in your solid waste bin—and they just stopped doing it when they had to hold onto it for two weeks. So the tonnage of organics just to shot up when we took away the every-week solid waste pick up.”

The proof came in a comparison with the tonnage rates in neighboring Wenham, where all waste, including recycling and solid waste, was picked up every week. “And guess what?” Clark says, with undisguised glee. “Over time, watching tonnage and how it worked, Hamilton’s solid waste was half of the tonnage of Wenham. And our organics was double,” she adds.

“And that pick-up schedule was the only difference between the two programs. And with that pick-up profile Hamilton had the lowest solid waste and the highest recycling or compost tonnage of any town in coastal Massachusetts.”

Clark notes “what makes people sit up and pay attention is when they get charged for a program. We’ve never had a pay-per-throw or pay-per-bag program even though we’ve had the highest recycling and lowest solid waste rates. But we’ve had a modified version of it with the free 33-gallon solid waste container and the $1.75 ‘overage’ bag.”

Composting is free, she says, “because we want you to compost to the max; if you have a big family and you want two green composting bins, that’s fine, that’s free.

But, on the solid waste side you get your free 33 gallons and then if you go over that you have the blue bag and I think the cost of that is going to be going up to something over $2.

"We don’t want to see those blue bags out there, even though the town makes out big time on those. They sort of defeat the purpose, which is to get people to be more assiduous about sorting their trash and recycling.”

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