Waste and Recycling

Massachusetts residents and businesses generate 10 to 11 million tons of garbage a year. How we dispose of this waste has critical public health and environmental implications. Currently, the primary ways we deal with our waste are by burying it in landfills, burning it in incinerators, or recycling it.

Impacts from landfills include the generation of significant amounts of methane — which contributes to global warming — as organic waste decomposes. In addition, leachate from landfills can contaminate ground water. Burning waste in incinerators results in the release of a variety of highly toxic emissions into the atmosphere, including mercury.

Additionally, waste disposal raises equity issues because landfills and incinerators have been disproportionately sited in low income communities or communities of color.

Recycling, on the other hand, helps us decrease the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or burned in incinerators. Unfortunately, as state budgets have tightened, however, funding for recycling efforts has been slashed over the past decade from a high of $15 million in Fiscal Year 2001 to a mere $375,000 in the current budget. At MassDEP (Dept. of Environmental Protection), staff levels have been reduced from 15 to 8 full-time recycling staff between Fiscal Year 2009 and Fiscal Year 2012 .

The state's recycling program is now forced to depend almost entirely on federal grants — a precarious situation, as these grants are not guaranteed from year to year.

There are a number of more innovative ways to deal with the ever-growing amounts of trash we generate:

Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT)

In communities that choose to adopt PAYT, residents are charged for the collection of ordinary household trash based on the amount they throw away. This creates a direct economic incentive to recycle more and to generate less waste.

This differs from the traditional approach in which residents pay for waste collection through property taxes or a fixed fee, regardless of how much — or how little — trash they generate. PAYT changes this model and treats trash like electricity, gas, and other utilities. Residents control how much they pay by controlling how much they throw away.

PAYT communities have documented an increase in recycling and a reduction in the amount of waste generated. PAYT provides the additional benefit of lowering disposal costs for municipalities already struggling with tight budgets.

Read more:

Pay as You Throw (PAYT) programs and case studies

Producer Take-Back

Producer Take Back describes an approach to waste that requires manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal of their products. When the cost of waste disposal shifts to the manufacturer, it creates a strong economic incentive for designing waste out of the system and also for reducing the use of toxic materials. While this approach has been adopted in other countries since the early 1990s, it has been slower to take off in the U.S.


Defined as end-of-life electronic devices, including computers, TVs, and cell phones, e-waste makes up the fastest growing portion of the municipal waste stream. In the next 5 years, e-waste levels are expected to triple as Americans discard their old electronics in favor of new technology. Unfortunately, only about 5% of this e-waste gets recycled. The rest goes to the landfill, where it leaches hazardous chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and beryllium. Up to 40% of the heavy metals found in landfills comes from e-waste.

Legislation has been introduced that would specifically deal with the problem of electronic waste.

Read more: MassDEP Electronics Recycling

Updated Bottle Bill

Massachusetts is one of 11 states in the U.S.that has a bottle bill. Bottle bills require that the price of certain types of beverage containers include a consumer deposit that can be redeemed by returning the container to any business that sells that product. The Massachusetts bottle bill, passed in 1982 with a 5 cent deposit, has been remarkably successful in reducing beverage container waste, with over 30 billion containers redeemed so far.

However, consumer tastes have changed over time, and we have seen a huge increase in the past decade in the consumption of bottled water, sports drinks, juices, and other single-use beverage containers not included in the original bottle bill. In Massachusetts, over a billion such containers are being sent to landfills or littering our landscapes and public spaces every year.

80% of beverage containers covered by the bottle bill are recycled — compared to less than 20% of "non-deposit" containers. Clearly, with an updated bottle bill, we would see an increase in recycing rates for these containers.

ELM is working with the Bottle Bill Coalition to update the bottle bill to match current consumption so it includes a wider variety of single-use beverage containers.

2013-2014 Ballot Initiative

On August 7, 2013, ELM and a coalition of over 90 organizations launched an initiative to place the Bottle Bill update on the November, 2014 ballot. With close to 80 percent of Mass. residents in favor of updating the Bottle Bill, we are confident of success – as long as we successfully gather the more than 68,000 signatures necessary to get this on the ballot.

Here’s where YOU (and your organization, and your family and friends) come in: we need help gathering signatures! If you would be willing to help gather signatures, please click here to give us your contact information. We will send you as many blank petitions as you need along with simple instructions. We also have a 6-minute training video and backup written instructions for signature drive volunteers available here. Even if you do not have experience with ballot initiatives, and even if you have limited time, we can use your help from September 18 to November 1, 2013!

In addition to the ballot initiative, ELM is working with our allies in the Legislature to pass the Bottle Bill update as legislation. 

House Bill 2943
Senate Bill 1588

Read more: 

DEP Beverage Containers in Litter and Public Waste Receptacles: Helpful data showing how important the Bottle Bill is in removing containers from the waste stream

DEP Bottle Bill Resource Guide: for more facts, contacts, and links

2011 DEP Study Debunking Industry Claims: Think updating the Bottle Bill will increase costs to consumers or reduce beverage choice? Think again.

Related Links

Recycling and Jobs in Massachusetts: A Study of Current and Future Workforce Needs

The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute: Rather than focusing on how industry can become “less bad,” the Institute is set up to be a resource for those who aspire to do “more good.” The Institute rethinks how we design, manufacture, use and reuse materials.

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