Dorchester as center of zero-waste economy? Could happen

Major changes to Boston’s trash system are under consideration, something that, advocates say, could reduce the city’s environmental footprint and boost the local economy.

A state-funded “zero waste” summit on April 4 that was hosted by the Boston Recycling Coalition (BRC) and city officials kicked off discussions that could lead to a formal proposal on Mayor Martin Walsh’s desk this summer. The goal is to dramatically raise Boston’s residential recycling rate by increasing participation, collecting food waste, limiting reliance on waste-to-energy incineration plants, and reusing more material within the city.

"We're looking at a paradigm shift,” said Susan Cascino, the city’s recycling director. “Trash is a linear process in this country.”

Dorchester has been highlighted as one of the areas in greatest need of improvement with the some of the greatest potential for economic benefits. While local curbside recycling rates have increased from 4 to 12 percent since 2008, they’re still the lowest in the city and lag behind the average of 18 percent. BRC members believe this can change with more education and more green jobs to help residents realize that trash can be profitable.

Cooperative Energy, Recycling and Organics (CERO) – a Dorchester-based company and BRC member – is seen as a model for these future waste companies. Founded in 2012, the commercial composter is run by a team of worker-owners who earn double the minimum wage with full benefits. The company now collects multiple tons of food waste per week from clients all over the city, including America’s Food Basket and the Boston Public Market.

Josefina Luna, one of CERO’s worker-owners, said she was taught to be environmentally conscious while growing up in the Dominican Republic. Since moving to Boston 25 years ago, she had been troubled by the lack of healthy options and recycling awareness. “Where are the green jobs in my community?” she asked. “The people in the community, they don’t have the information about what this means, about the opportunities.”

Details are far from final, but BRC members said they can see a wide range of local opportunities. A zero waste system will require more composting businesses, textile recyclers for old clothes, workshops for repurposing furniture, centers for handling e-waste, and technologies that haven’t been thought of yet.

“This is tapping into a new way of thinking about how products are created, products are manufactured, sold, and then disposed of,” said Curtis Rollins, community organizing director for the Boston Workers Alliance.

Rollins said that underutilized industrial spaces in Dorchester could be used for many of these concepts, but emphasized the need for a community engagement process to make sure residents can weigh in on facilities coming to their area.

Another goal of the April 4 summit was to learn from other cities that have already begun moving toward zero waste systems. National consultants who helped organize the meeting brought in people from San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles to discuss their experiences Because much of Boston’s trash is handled outside the city, individuals from Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Quincy, Lynn, Lawrence, and Chelsea were on hand to discuss regional solutions.

The planning process, which has support from all 13 Boston city councilors and involves a wide range of city departments, is still months away from being finalized. “There’s a lot at stake here and we have to do this in a careful way in an open and thoughtful process,” said Alex Papali, zero waste organizer for Clean Water Action. “We’re really hoping that Boston can lead the way in setting a national gold standard for a zero waste economy."

A $24,000 Department of Environmental Protection grant that funded the summit also provides for follow-up meetings in May and June. From there, the city’s Public Works Department and Department of Environment, Energy and Open Space will draft a proposal for the mayor. The goal is to get money in the next city budget to develop a more formal plan.

In 2014, the BRC released a report calling for the city to reach zero waste by 2040 by recycling more than 90 percent of its trash. Factoring in yard waste and e-waste recycling, Boston’s overall recycling rate is currently a little more than 20 percent and it could take decades to change that.

In the meantime, groups such as CERO will continue to help spread the word about why people’s responsibility for the 240,000 tons of residential waste they generate every year doesn’t end at the curb.

“The way we’re acting is a serious problem for having a clean environment,” said CERO’s Josefina Luna. “I believe the people can do that if they have the information and the education. They need to know why they have to do it.”

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