The Newton Sustainable Material Management Commission (SMMC) recently released a set of recommendations in their report, Setting the Path to Zero Waste: Recommendations on the Future of Residential Curbside Waste Management in Newton. The recommendations address the commission’s concerns regarding Newton’s slowdown in waste reduction and its implications for human and environmental health, greenhouse gas emissions, and future waste disposal costs for the city. In short, Newton must do more to reduce its trash output, and to do so we must employ new strategies.

For a great summary of the issues, read Councilor Andreae Downes’ recent newsletter. You can also view the December 2  Newton Free Library presentation, “Getting Newton from Recycling to Zero Waste.” (The SMMC recommendation start at about 45:30 minutes into the video.)

What can you do?

  • Sign up for future notifications about zero waste in Newton.
  • Let the mayor and city council know you support the commission’s recommendations and would like to see greater waste reduction measures put in place in our city.

Below are excerpts from the SMMC report’s executive summary:

Key Findings

  • Shrinking regional landfill capacity will limit solid waste disposal outlets, increase pressure on Massachusetts communities to export solid waste out-of-state, and almost certainly raise disposal costs significantly.
  • The cost of Newton’s latest 5-year waste collection and hauling contract (2020-2025) is markedly higher than the previous contract. Many communities across Massachusetts are experiencing rising waste hauling and disposal costs, and costs are expected to continue to increase.
  • Newton’s 20-year solid waste disposal contract with the Wheelabrator Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plant in Millbury will expire in 2028. We assume but are not certain whether the Millbury WTE plant will operate beyond 2028, but Newton will almost certainly face significantly higher trash disposal costs in the next contract.
  • Newton’s curbside trash and recyclables tonnage has declined over time, but it has leveled off in recent years. Recycling is an important component of reducing trash and should continue to be strengthened, but it is not enough. It will be important for Newton to invest in new programs to further prevent waste generation and increase waste diversion if the City intends to control rising costs and keep its commitment to zero waste.2
  • Newton’s residential waste hauling and disposal services are paid for through a general fund, funded largely through residential property taxes.3 As a consequence, residents generally do not know how much these services cost and have little financial incentive to reduce waste.
  • Removing organics from the trash stream would have the largest and most immediate impact on reducing trash.

SMMC Recommendations

Reducing our trash, along with diverting waste through recycling and composting, will help achieve important greenhouse gas reductions; reductions in air, soil, and water contamination; and lifecycle resource conservation. To reduce Newton’s environmental impact and better buffer our city against the financial impacts from future residential waste management costs, the SMMC recommends that the City adopt the following strategies by the end of 2023 so that our path forward is defined prior to negotiations for the next waste hauling contract in 2024:

1. Set residential zero waste goals for Newton

In order to make measurable progress towards waste reduction, we recommend that the City commit to specific waste reduction goals. Reducing trash tonnage by 25% by 2030 and 70% by 2050 compared to 2018 levels would put Newton near the waste reduction goals set by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Neighboring communities such as Boston and Cambridge have drafted zero waste plans with quantified waste reduction goals.

2. Implement a citywide curbside organics collection program

Massachusetts residential trash tested at the Wheelabrator Millbury WTE contains approximately 29.2% food waste.7 Diverting organic materials from the waste stream could substantially reduce trash tonnage, and organics can be composted or anaerobically digested, both of which are environmentally preferable to landfill disposal or incineration.8 Expanding curbside collection to include organics would provide convenient and equitable access for all residents, increasing the likelihood that organics will be diverted from trash. The additional costs of a citywide program could be offset, partially or fully, by the savings from bi-weekly trash collection (as discussed below).

3. Incentivize trash reduction with a fee-based variable rate system and/or bi-weekly collection

Moving to multiple cart sizes combined with a fee-for-service model, similar to utility billing for water, would incentivize further trash reduction. Residents would have control over how much trash they generate and thus can control their costs. Currently, residents are likely unaware of the City’s cost of waste management and have little incentive to reduce trash below the 65-gallon trash cart volume. Recycling, yard waste, and organics collection would be offered with no additional fee.

Reconfiguring trash collection (and recycling) from weekly to bi-weekly cuts greenhouse gas emissions and would lower the cost of trash collection by putting fewer trash trucks on the road. Such a cost savings could help defray the costs of starting a citywide curbside organics collection program.

4. Strengthen support for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation

In 2021, Newton passed a resolution to support EPR initiatives at the state level to reduce waste at the source. These laws will incentivize manufacturers to reduce unnecessary and difficult-to-recycle packaging and make it easier for residents to reduce waste. The City should continue to actively support EPR legislation at the state level as well as support local fees or bans that support waste reduction.

5. Increase SMMD staffing

Designing and implementing new programs, as well as expanding existing programs, will require more SMMD staff time. We recommend that the SMMD budget be increased in the next few years to include at least one more full-time staff position. For comparison, Cambridge operates with a staff of 5 full-time employees for 46,835 households, and Brookline has 3 full-time staff members for 24,436 households. In comparison, Newton has 2.5 full-time staff members for 31,139 total households.9

6. Develop a comprehensive zero waste plan for the City of Newton

This SMMC report and the upcoming SMMD 5-Year Sustainable Materials Management Strategy address strategies for reducing residential curbside waste. Though the residential sector constitutes a large portion of the City’s waste, it is only one component. We must reduce all waste, including from multi- family buildings, institutions, restaurants and other businesses, and construction & demolition work. The City needs a comprehensive zero waste plan that can be used as a road map for reducing waste through all sectors, and we recommend one be in place prior to negotiations for the next waste hauling contract in 2024. Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline have already put such plans in place or are in the process of developing one.