Published in the Brookline
August 12, 1999
No doubt town officials are pleased that Brookline just got an A in
recycling. Getting an A always sounds good.
But it doesn't always mean much. Those of us who have taught college
know that grade inflation is pretty bad. Today's students often expect,
and often get, higher and higher grades for less and worse work. Undeserved
grades for shoddy student performance, however, don't compare to the
recycling grades dished out by the Massachusetts Executive Office of
As reported in the July 29th TAB, in 1998 Brookline recycled 42% of
its solid waste and 39% of its residential waste. This puts us in the
same league as our Cambridge and Newton peers. The A group is well ahead
of Boston and Somerville, which got C's because they divert only 10
or 15% of their waste from the dump. This makes me wonder, though. If
throwing almost all a town's waste into the dump leads to a C, did any
town actually get a D? And what does it take to get an F? Bringing back
waste from the dump and distributing it to each household?
Brookline is a progressive town, with lots of people who want to make
the world a better place. Environmentalists, liberals, and elementary
school children, all well represented here, generally agree that recycling
is important. Although it's not the ultimate solution to societal excess
and over-consumption, at least it offers the chance to feel good about
not making things worse.
But there's a serious barrier to our recycling impulse: Perhaps half
of Brookline residents live in buildings with five or more units--and
most of these buildings don't recycle. So most Brookline waste is buried
or burned, not recycled and reused.
This problem has gotten worse since Brookline dropped out of the state's
Municipal Recycling Incentive Program, which offers grants to towns
to increase multi-unit recycling. To compensate, the town set up that
recycling dumpster in the Fuller Street parking lot where renters and
condoites can bring their newspapers. The town is "considering" putting
in a dumpster for glass and plastic. The second dumpster would be an
improvement, but forgive me for suspecting it's not likely to make much
of a dent in our mountain of trash.
Brookline needs an institutional response, not appeals to individuals
to fill their cars with papers and bottles and schlep down Harvard Street.
There are 13,000 Brookline households in multi-unit dwellings. Are we
all supposed to pull into the Fuller lot? How much gasoline would this
mass recycling run take?
The truth is that the Fuller dumpster solution only works if most people
don't use it.
To succeed, recycling has to be simple. Putting recyclables in a bin
on the street is simple. But for those of us in apartment buildings,
that's not an option. When I moved to a Brookline apartment last summer
and tried to get a blue bin, the town wouldn't give me one. When we
sneakily put out bags of newspapers and bottles anyway, after a couple
of weeks the trash collectors stopped taking them. So much for ecological
Societal problems require comprehensive solutions, not just appeals
to individuals to do better. We need to brainstorm about possible alternatives.
One obvious approach is to have the town pick up all recyclables from
apartment buildings and condos--whether the city picks up the rest of
those buildings' trash or not. The trucks go down the street anyway.
Another approach might be to require every landlord to recycle. Sure
they'll complain. So what. With rents sky high, landlords can hardly
claim they can't afford the extra cost.
A third approach, one I personally like, would be to require every
business that generates waste to collect that waste and recycle it.
We really need a new environmental ethos: Don't produce things that
can't be recycled, and don't sell anything you don't take back. Maybe
producers will eventually get the message and design less wasteful packaging.
These and other possibilities would cost some money and ruffle some
feathers. But they'd get Brookline an A we'd actually deserve.
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