Is Trash Eating Too Much Cash?

black trash bin with green leaves

If garbage collection in Sterling is the same in coming years as in recent past, we may find ourselves spending as much as $705,000 next year for the service. That’s not the biggest town expenditure, but it ain’t hay. If it were hay, we could compost it or feed it to my neighbor Dave’s cows. Since it’s not hay, the majority of it goes to a landfill at about $90 per ton. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Go back a century or more, and households pretty much lived with their garbage. This worked pretty well when households purchased very little and none of it came packaged, when food was expensive and never wasted, when pigs ate all the garbage, when a barn stored everything that could possibly be reused, and when we had horses to drag bigger unwanted items to the back of the property and push it down a ravine. You will still see those mini-dumps on any walk through Sterling’s forests. 

This is not a winning approach today. Who’s got a pig, a horse, a barn, and the equipment to process Coke bottles and Doritos bags? Not to mention enough land to locate our own personal landfill far from the kitchen?

How big a landfill are we talking about? The United States produced 292.4 Million tons of solid waste in 2018, which is 4.9 pounds per person per day. More than half of it ends up in landfill. Only 25 million tons were composted. The ongoing challenge is finding landfill sites. Available space keeps shrinking while the amount of garbage keeps growing. 

This year, Sterling paid $620,000 for pickup and removal of 2,325 tons of Trash, 365 tons of Comingle, and 426 tons of Fiber. The demand for recyclables is a bit soft in the region, so Comingle costs about the same to dispose of as Trash, about $90 per ton. The cost for Fiber is about $25 per ton. 

Many communities set a target of 25-50% for the share of waste that goes to landfill. Sterling’s trash is 75% of the total waste disposed of. That’s not too bad. Here in Sterling we are pretty good at recycling. Most households compost their leaves, and many of us enjoy swapping stuff at Wachusett Recycling. There is more we can do, and it could be big. We could compost our food waste. 

Brattleboro, Vermont and surrounding towns compost their food waste. In 2018, the town collected 605 tons of organic waste. With a lower dumping fee for organics as compared to trash, the town saved $24,400. The composting effort kept 23% of Brattleboro’s total waste out of landfills. The operation is actually cash flow positive: it made $150,000 last year selling compost. That compost has an international reputation for quality. 

If Sterling could remove the same share of waste from the landfill stream as Brattleboro does, we would divert 535 tons and save $48,000. 

Composting rather than dumping in a landfill has important environmental effects. Landfills generate about 14% of the methane caused by human activity. (Cows famously generate about 40%). Diversion of food waste from landfill disposal reduces greenhouse gas since, unlike decay in landfills, methane is not created by composting. 

Organic matter in soil is now engineered for specific purposes. The organic matter content of soil can be increased through use of compost. This increases the soil’s ability to absorb stormwater, and reduce erosion and associated water quality impacts. Soil absorption is an important tool in improving our infrastructure’s resilience in the face of 2-inch rainstorms like the one on November 30th. If we had abundant compost, we could create our own engineered soil, from our own resources, which would reduce the cost of fixing some of our storm run-off problems.

Composting of food waste is in our future, one way or another. Massachusetts has had a ban on landfill disposal of leaves and grass for many years, and more recently, food waste. The current policy applies to institutions that generate one ton of food waste per week, such as supermarkets, colleges, restaurants, hospitals, and food manufacturers. DEP is proposing to lower the threshold to one half ton per week, and perhaps will eventually seek control of residential food waste. 

Last month Keeping Sterling, a working group I am part of, hosted Bob Spencer at a Zoom meeting. Bob is executive director of Windham Solid Waste Management District, which includes Brattleboro. Bob lived in Sterling a decade ago, and helped the town establish the Open Space Implementation Committee. Bob described the simplicity of the Windham composting. A front end loader buries the food waste along with leaves and chips. In 6 months to a year, voila, compost. 

Bob identified several options for diverting food waste from landfill or incinerator disposal in Sterling: 

  • Promote backyard composting via workshops and subsidized compost bins.
  • Drop-off at town recycling center and haul to permitted compost facility such as Mass Natural Fertilizer Co. in Westminster, or an anerobic digester such as Jordan Farm in
    Rutland. MDEP lists organic waste recycling facilities in Holden, Spencer, and Barre.
  • Curbside collection of residential food waste by subscription service, such as City Compost, Gardner.
  • Curbside collection of food scraps by hauler under contract to the town, such as with trash and recyclables.
  • Combine with leaves and co-collect.
  • Develop a food waste composting site in Sterling, something like 1-3 acres, and have it operated by the town, or a private company.
  • Partner with other towns for a regional composting facility. 

Food waste composting has an upside for our budget and our environment, making it very attractive. It would require a change in habits, something humans find very unattractive. What do you think Sterling should do and can do?

Published by Sue Aldrich

I'm a talented writer who connects business goals with technology, to get your message across through readable and engaging content. I have expertise in personalization, customer experience, journey optimization, recommendations, and search. I also research and write articles on sustainability for my hometown newspaper, Sterling Meetinghouse News.

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