This year, the town of Wellesley is celebrating its 50th anniversary of a local recycling program: a transfer station where residents would normally drop off recycling and used items, then browse their neighbor’s hand-me-downs.
In a time when recycling has become increasingly expensive, suburban and affluent communities such as Wellesley may be more willing or able to afford these waste programs.
Wellesley’s case is particularly unique: It started as a community-led initiative and has now grown into a large and innovative Recycling and Disposal Facility under the town’s Department of Public Works.
Yet if they are able to — or in fact do — put more funding into sustainability than lower-income communities, why are some wealthy towns still producing a concerning amount of waste?
A 2019 Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection “How Much Trash Did We Throw Out?” map shows no pattern between capita income and pounds of waste per household.
Households in Carlisle, Lexington and Winchester — in the top 10 wealthiest towns in Massachusetts — are producing some of the most waste. Other towns from the same top 10 such as Wellesley, Manchester-by-the-Sea and Sudbury are producing significantly less.
For one, the data from the map includes both recycling and solid waste, so it could be that most of the household waste is diverted to recycling plants.
Another likely possibility is that most of the waste is food waste. In 2018, more than a quarter of Massachusetts trash was food waste, which was sent to landfills rather than diverted to composting facilities.
And guess what? Opting in for the composting program often costs an additional fee, which residents may not be able or willing to shell out.
The issues for recycling and composting boil down to the same: time, energy, education and resources. Take Boston University as a case study — if educated and mostly progressive college students can’t be bothered to throw their waste in the right bins, why should we expect residents to go out of their way to pay for additional waste services or use them correctly?
In low-income areas especially, priorities won’t be on sustainability. The most pressing issues in these communities are housing, rent, groceries, health care, education and systemic racism. When your access to the essentials is consistently endangered or at risk of being taken away, an expensive and complicated process of being environmentally friendly is the last thing you need.
This is why we need to put the responsibility on our elected officials, local governments and waste management. There needs to be more widely accessible and distributed information on how the programs work and how to properly recycle or compost, so we don’t throw pizza boxes into our recyclables and taint the entire batch.
The whole feat of reducing, reusing and recycling must be made less intimidating and insurmountable — particularly for everyday people who have more imminent concerns to stress over.
Furthermore, even if these towns and households significantly divert and reduce their waste, the institutional issues remain.
Landfills and incinerators — toxic, leaky and huffy — are located in places such as Southbridge and Saugus and are, unsurprisingly, terrible for the community’s health.
Recycling plants that rely on people recycling correctly — which is not always the case in the United States — don’t process all the waste. If residents are not properly educated on how to recycle or what to recycle, their contributions may not be used. Most people don’t realize this because they don’t think to look behind the curtain.
Food waste from restaurants, businesses and colleges continue to add up. In 2014, Massachusetts banned the disposal of more than one ton of commercial organic waste per week. We need to keep expanding on this by promoting food donations and reducing food waste — apps such as Too Good To Go and Food for All are a good start.
And on a national and international level, large companies produce the most waste and largest carbon footprints.
In the end, the individual can and should be accountable for their own waste whenever possible — taking shorter showers, reducing consumption, learning more about recycling, etc.
But the brunt of the work has to be done by the government and by large corporations because they’re the ones who have the power to actualize real, immediate and impactful change.