The Argument

The Argument: Should Massachusetts adopt legislation making recycling mandatory for all residents?

Should Massachusetts adopt legislation making recycling mandatory for all residents?


Brenda Black

Hingham resident and member of the town’s Long Range Waste Planning and Recycling Committee

Brenda Black
Brenda Black(handout)

Massachusetts has a waste problem. We are generating more trash than we have capacity to handle. Only a handful of landfills remain open. Waste incinerators -- a once promising technology for our small state with limited open land -- have been proven to contribute to carbon dioxide emissions and other air-quality problems. And we are already shipping 1.1 million tons of waste out of state for disposal yearly, according to state figures for 2009.


Mandatory recycling for all residents is an important step toward reducing waste and achieving sustainability. All residents should know the part they need to play to reduce waste. Processing recyclables is much cheaper than trash disposal, so recycling reduces waste costs for your town and thus the taxes you pay. Recycling has other important benefits: Recycling operations create new local jobs, and recycled materials become the feedstock for manufacturing that reuses materials and requires less water and energy -- thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Massachusetts regulations require waste haulers, both private and municipal, to ensure that recyclables are kept out of the trash and brought to the few remaining landfills and to waste incinerators. Recyclable paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal as well as yard waste and wood are no longer permitted. However, haulers have not adequately enlisted the help of the towns and customers they serve in meeting these requirements. This year, the state has a team of inspectors examining trash loads brought to these facilities, and haulers and the towns served may be required to perform corrective actions if recyclables are not kept out of the trash stream.

Currently, 144 Massachusetts cities and towns have adopted “pay as you throw” programs that require residents to purchase bags or stickers for disposing of their trash while offering recycling for free. This approach has proved to be the most effective way of reducing waste and increasing recycling. Yet we can do more. Ninety-five cities and towns now require their residents to recycle, and the state can extend that to all Massachusetts residents.


It is time for all residents to understand that they have a vital part to play in helping us reach sustainability and keep waste disposal costs down.


Bob Stubbs

Canton resident and technology executive

Bob Stubbs
Bob Stubbs(handout)

The question posed is not whether or not to recycle, or even whether a municipality should have mandatory recycling. Instead, the question posed is, “Should the state adopt legislation making recycling mandatory for all residents?”

To that question, the answer is no. Put aside for the moment that this decision should rest with the individual municipalities. After all, they would need to do the cost-benefit analysis of taking on the additional expense. There would be startup costs that less-affluent cities and towns with already-stressed budgets might not be able to accommodate on their own. While recycling programs can be revenue-generating, the income may not always exceed the expense, resulting in a net cost.

If the Commonwealth were to mandate recycling by every resident, what form would enforcement take? Citations for failure to comply? Fines? Who would administer that and what would that cost? Could an individual citizen be in violation if designated recyclable items properly placed out were later replaced improperly by a local salvager who had gone through the items? Would an undue burden fall on citizens in less-affluent communities that had to struggle to provide an expanded recycling program to support the mandate?


No, at present, any and all legislative action at the state level around recycling should avoid mandating individual behavior and take the form of incentives and assistance to help municipalities instrument the most effective recycling program for that city or town. The state does not have unlimited resources either, so the extent of the assistance needs to be carefully considered and balanced with other commitments.

In my town, we have moved to single-stream recycling with each family being allocated one large receptacle for weekly garbage pickup and another for bi-weekly recycling. My family of five has adapted to this and except for the occasional need for a special drop-off, we live within these parameters.

While I’m certain a bill that evokes the ideals of mandating 100 percent recycling by 100 percent of the citizenry would be well-intentioned and could pass, it would waste time, energy, and money on an unmanageable mandate.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at