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Brookline Newcomer

Brookline's inflated "A" grade in recycling

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 Environmental Affairs.

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 zeal.

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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