Gretel Clark has spent the last few decades of her 84 years on a mission to save the planet, starting with the trash-disposal habits of her town of Hamilton. This month, thanks largely to her efforts, the town became the first in the state to mandate composting for all its residents.
The program puts Hamilton on par with cities like San Francisco and Seattle, as well as the State of Vermont, which rolled out a statewide composting mandate last year.
The changes come at a critical moment, as municipalities across the state wage war against waste and people spend more time at home — and thus create more trash.
Pulling organic material like table scraps out of the waste stream makes trash weigh less, which means towns and cities could pay less to have it hauled away. And diverting organics is better for the planet: Putting those materials back into the earth through composting helps plants pull more carbon from the air and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, which combats climate change.
“Quite frankly, it’s a very simple thing to ask people to do,” Clark said. “We’re not doing something revolutionary.”
Environmental advocates say Clark’s mindfulness could be the way of the future, if Hamilton’s mandate propels more municipalities to follow suit.
“If you look at the pie chart of what gets disposed of in Massachusetts, something like 28 percent of what we’re sending to incinerators is food and organics. It’s insanity,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of the advocacy group MassPIRG.
“We should divert all organics from disposal, period, end of sentence. It’s not like we have to figure something out; we know how to do this, and we just need to commit to the infrastructure that makes it happen.”
But building that infrastructure is easier said than done, particularly because the state’s waste-removal industry has been tested this past year. Industry trade publications reported that, nationally, residential trash tonnage volumes surged up to 20 percent in spring and summer last year due to panic buying and home-decluttering. Those numbers have leveled off to a 5 to 10 percent increase now, but waste disposal’s a significant financial burden for many towns.
Boston has seen a 6.6 percent increase in trash, and Somerville has told the state Department of Environmental Protection that its solid waste has increased 4 percent. The Cape and the Berkshires have seen a spike in trash tonnage, too, as a result of second-home owners setting up more permanent residences during the pandemic.
Claire Galkowski, executive director of the South Shore Recycling Cooperative, said that over the past year trash tonnage increased 13 percent across 58,000 households in nine towns she works with. Disposal costs per ton increased 11 percent, for an additional $517,000 in fees over the past year. She said this all comes as the state is running out of landfill space and is hauling trash by rail to out-of-state landfills.
Ed Coletta, a DEP spokesman, said the state is currently conducting its annual survey to get a sense of just how much additional trash has been created during COVID-19 and will incorporate the findings in its 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan.
In the meantime, he hailed Hamilton’s willingness to roll out its composting program. “Hamilton has certainly blazed the trail on organics collection at the curb,” he said.
“Hamilton is right up there on the tip of the spear,” said Conor Miller, cofounder of Black Earth Compost, a composter and hauler on the North Shore. (It isn’t doing business with the town.) Black Earth’s revenues have doubled during the pandemic, Miller said, as more municipalities have begun looking to offset the sharp spike in trash fees by having their citizens pay his composting service to collect their kitchen scraps. In the past year, towns like Belmont, Brookline, and Newton have contracted with Black Earth as a “preferred vendor,” helping to drive down the fees per household.
But creating a town mandate, he said, puts a lot of politicians on edge. “The towns are too nervous. If they start paying for something, it kind of becomes an entitlement and really hard to reverse,” Miller said.
It helps that Hamilton has been on the cutting edge of compost collection for some time.
Clark and the Hamilton Waste Reduction Committee began working on these issues decades ago — she was Massachusetts Recycler of the year in 2011 — and she helped create a composting pilot program in 2009, with the DEP helping to cover the cost of buying the composting bins.
By 2013, all Hamilton residents could opt in to the program, tossing their banana peels and coffee grounds into green bins and putting them on the curb. The town was also given a $40-per-ton disposal rate from Brick Ends Farm, a composting site, which was far lower than the trash rate of $70.
For Hamilton, removing food waste from residents’ bins was as much a financial decision as an environmental one, said Shawn Farrell, who chairs the Board of Selectmen.
“We could see it as a way to be fiscally responsible and lower our trash burden,” Farrell said.
And indeed, it helped bring down the amount of trash to the point where, pre-COVID, the trash-and-recycling truck came only every other week, he said. But that has changed now that everyone is at home, and the town has gone back to once-a-week collections.
Already, they’ve been feeling the financial hit: Disposal fees are currently $83 a ton, but stand to go above $90 a ton in coming years, Farrell said.
It’s part of what pushed Clark to advocate for mandatory composting.
“I just kept thinking, heck, all we have to do is say ‘Do it!’ ” Clark said matter-of-factly. But she knew that giving her neighbors the option was not enough. So Clark and her team crafted the new mandate: If you want your trash picked up, you also have to drag your compost bin to the curb. (At-home composters can get a special exemption sticker on their garbage bins.)
Those who fail to bring their compost out will get a notification reminding them new collection rules are in place. By May, the town will stopping picking up trash if compost isn’t alongside it.
It’s going to be a learning curve for some folks, said Clark, who has been fielding complaints about dragging an additional bin to the curb.
And there are concerns that mandating compost collection means some people may just fill their bins with more trash.
“This could get really dirty really quick,” said James Gist, chief financial officer at Brick Ends Farm, where the town’s compost will be sorted. “I don’t think the Town of Hamilton will have that problem, but I think you try to scale this and you might see a few more issues.”
But Gist credits Clark’s tenacity and believes that if there’s any trouble, she’ll straighten it out. “Gretel is the genius behind it all. She’s a sharp lady,” he said.
For Clark, the imperative to compost is clear:
“It’s one of the few ways that people here in this town can take a step to help reduce global warming. Lots of other towns are now calling me and saying ‘How can we do that?’ ”