One day each week, Lexington residents dutifully schlep their brimming garbage barrels and recycling bins to the curb and later retrieve them, emptied and ready for the next week’s worth of junk. Once the stuff is out the door, hardly anyone gives it another thought. It’s just the way things are, and always have been.
But that’s about to change.
Massachusetts faces tight recycling markets, aging incinerators, the anticipated closure of all its landfills, and rising costs for solid waste disposal. In response, the state has created a master plan, with a goal of reaching a 90 percent reduction in solid waste by 2050. From a 2018 baseline of 5.7 million tons of refuse, that will mean getting to 570,000 tons annually in just over thirty years. This will be accomplished by diverting materials from the trash stream through policies that encourage reuse, recycling, and composting, and by eliminating products and packaging that can’t be reused, recycled, or composted.
Now, Lexington is responding with a plan of its own. In development is the town’s Zero Waste Plan, which, in its current draft form, would divert 90 percent of the town’s solid waste from the trash stream within ten years. The plan defines zero waste as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” The plan has the potential to control future costs, lower greenhouse gas emissions, protect the environment, and reduce any elevated health risks to environmental justice communities located near toxin-emitting incinerators and landfills. Through recycling, reuse, and composting, including waste reduction policies and a food rescue program at Lexington Public Schools, Lexington already diverts 60 percent — 13,600 tons — of its trash from the incinerator. By getting to 90 percent, Lexington could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by some 9,500 metric tons per year.
The plan, which is being crafted with input from residents, was spurred by a Zero Waste Resolution passed by Town Meeting in 2022. Each year, according to the resolution, Lexington sends about 9,000 tons of trash to the Wheelabrator incinerator in North Andover, with residual ash disposed of at the Ash Landfill in Shrewsbury. These facilities are located in environmental justice communities — essentially, communities with financially disadvantaged and minority populations whose health is disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards. “The tall stacks on an incinerator disperse the pollutants over a broader area. It may not reach Lexington,” says Laura Swain, a retired environmental lawyer for the state who is now president of the Lexington Zero Waste Collaborative, “but it certainly reaches environmental justice communities around the incinerator.” Even well-maintained incinerators and landfills that meet regulatory requirements may emit pollutants that can cause breathing problems, cancer, birth defects, organ and nervous system damage, and affect child development.
“Think about whether we’re willing to have an incinerator in our town to incinerate our own waste that we’re producing,” says Hien Nguyen, a Lexington resident who serves on the Town’s Zero Waste Plan Working Group. “If we’re not willing to do that, then we need to do what we can to reduce as much as possible the amount of stuff that we are sending elsewhere to be burned.”
The United States is home to 4 percent of the world’s population, but generates 12 percent of the world’s waste. “We’re part of a much broader system that isn’t designed toward waste reduction,” says Maggie Peard, the Town’s Sustainability and Resilience Officer. The draft zero waste plan is an attempt to make a dent in that. The plan would proceed in three stages. Short term — one to three years — the goal is to reach a 72 percent townwide diversion rate, possibly by expanding the types of items that can be recycled and providing curbside compost collection services. Townwide composting of food waste alone would pull about 25 percent of what’s thrown away from the incinerator/landfill stream. Currently, there are no municipal curbside food composting services in Lexington, but nearly six hundred families pay for Black Earth Compost to pick up their food waste and other compostable materials. The Town applied $216,000 in federal American Rescue Plan funds to launch a pilot program offering free Black Earth Compost services to 2,000 households. The pilot is fully subscribed.
After food waste composting, the next most effective waste-reduction approach is a pay-as-you-throw, or PAYT, program, according to Kirstie Pecci, Executive Director of Just Zero, a Massachusetts-based zero-waste advocacy organization. Under PAYT, residents are charged fees for the amount of trash they toss out, incentivizing them to put more of their solid waste toward composing, reuse, and recycling. Lexington adopted PAYT in 2001, but the program ended after a controversy that spawned a lawsuit, citizen petitions, and a ballot referendum overturning a Special Town Meeting action that would have allowed charging fees for waste removal. In Massachusetts, 155 out of 351 municipalities have a PAYT program. In 2020, the average household in these towns generated 29 percent less trash than the average household in non-PAYT communities. Overall, PAYT municipalities have reduced their solid waste tonnage by 25 to 50 percent. The draft zero waste plan contemplates that the town would evaluate whether fee incentives would reduce waste and increase recycling and composting.
Medium term — four to seven years — the goal is a 79 percent diversion rate through new policies that would require increased usage of recyclable and compostable products and foodware, and by expanding the reuse, recycling, and composting programs and infrastructure at Hartwell Avenue. Long term — eight to ten years — Lexington would reach 90 percent through mandatory participation and enforcement, requiring the recycling of construction and demolition debris, and the enforcement of state bans.
The plan would provide for outreach, education, and technical assistance to help residents, businesses, schools, and other institutions adapt to a zero-waste approach, and would require municipal government to adopt zero waste practices as well. The plan is anticipated to cost $75,000 annually, plus $185,000 for one-time contractor support and $2-3 million in one-time infrastructure investments.
But failure to meet the 90 percent diversion rate would also result in costs. Massachusetts’ landfills are expected to all close by 2028. That means Lexington will have to send its trash out of state — and that’s expensive. “Those costs are going to be significant as opposed to what we’re paying now, so any opportunity we have to reduce our normal trash is definitely going to help,” says David Pinsonneault, Lexington’s Director of Public Works. Lexington’s disposal costs —its “tipping fee”— is around $80 per ton. That could double or even triple if trash has to be shipped out of state. Lexington is budgeted to spend $781,235 on trash disposal this fiscal year. (Recycling and composting facilities also incur tonnage costs, but they are lower than for trash.)
Tipping fees are not the only costs associated with trash removal. There’s also equipment and workforce costs for garbage collection. “I don’t expect that collection costs are going to really go downwards,” says Assistant Town Manager for Finance Carolyn Kosnoff. “If you think about it, wages, labor, costs of fuel and energy and things like that are unlikely to decrease by any significant amount. But certainly what we’re producing and the cost of actually disposing of it would have a positive impact on the budget.”
As Lexington transitions to a zero-waste future, the community will be making choices about ways to proceed. For example, if a robust, townwide curbside recycling and composting collection program materializes, might Lexington save money by picking up trash every other week? Lexington currently bans certain plastic bags and plastic straws. What other bans on plastics and non-compostable materials might the town consider? Should the Hartwell facility’s reuse, recycling, and composting programs expand and grow? State bans, like the diversion of textiles and mattresses from the trash, are likely to accumulate. State laws that would promote reuse and recycling, like an expansion of the bottle bill, may start getting passed. (Lexington has a by-appointment mattress and box spring collection program that costs substantially less than programs in other towns. Measures that would expand the existing bottle bill are now before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which is chaired by State Senator Mike Barrett, who represents parts of Lexington. Barrett told the Lexington Observer that he favors an expanded bottle bill and he is working with colleagues to bring the issue before the legislature this session.) What will Lexington put in place to help residents comply with state mandates?
“There’s going to be probably a menu of things that would be brought forward that the citizens would then determine how they want to approach it,” says DPW Director Pinsonneault.
Recycling represents a particular challenge, as the system is widely acknowledged to be broken. We inadvertently contaminate our recycling by tossing in items that don’t belong there, or are dirty, or by bundling our recycling in filmy plastic bags. When that happens, the entire bin or bag just gets incinerated. “If recyclable material is contained within a bag, the whole bag gets tossed immediately, because they’re not going to break the bag open and sort out the individual pieces,” says Mara Shulman, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. Many countries that used to import recycling from the United States no longer do so. Yet zero-waste advocates say curbside recycling is still worthwhile, especially if households put in the effort to avoid contamination. “You have to use the system you have as best you can responsibly. That’s the best way to actually get something done, right now, this second,” says Pecci of Just Zero. “But we have to continue criticizing and evaluating the system to improve it.” The process of transitioning to zero waste will take a long, sustained effort, as well as input and buy-in from the community. Residents and businesses wishing to follow developments can sign up for the town’s “Link to Lexington” and “Sustainablex” newsletters, and can offer feedback on the town’s zero waste plan through a public comment form.