Saturday, May 18, 2024

Recycling Director Randi Mail gives a presentation Monday at City Hall on recycling changes coming in September to Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Single-stream recycling comes to Cambridge in September, officials said Monday at a City Council roundtable. That means less sorting of what goes into recycling and the rollout — literally — of more large, wheeled toters throughout the city, replacing the common small bin.

Households get the 65- and 95-gallon toters for free, as will be explained in a mailing and presentations in the summer and fall, said Randi Mail, the city’s recycling director. Single-family households will get a 65-gallon toter, and two-family households will get two; buildings holding three, four or five households will get two of the larger toters. Up to 90 percent of even larger buildings in the city are already using them.

Sept. 20 also brings the ability to recycle more items, Mail said during her presentation Monday to councillors and a handful of members of the public. While plastic bags and Styrofoam are still banned from curbside collection, larger plastic items such as laundry bins and toys will be allowed, along with all sizes of cardboard, including refrigerator boxes and empty pizza boxes; frozen food boxes; and spiral cans, such as those for salted nuts.

“I’m convinced we’re going to see a lot more cardboard in the recycling,” Mail said.

If unacceptable items are put out at the curb for pickup, drivers of recycling trucks can continue to reject them. Whatever sneaks through — some 3 percent to 5 percent of city recycling consists of unacceptable items — will be sent off to a landfill in Rochester, N.H.

Introduction of the toters and single-stream option, sometimes called “zero-sort,” is expected to increase recycling in Cambridge by at least 10 percent.

Other communities introducing the measures have seen increases as high as 25 percent, acknowledged Lisa Peterson, director of the Public Works Department, but Cambridge already does a lot of recycling — about 35 percent of its waste stream.

“It’s hard to squeeze another 25 percent out,” Peterson said.

Councillors expressed concern about the city’s recycling becoming tainted by garbage and other unwanted materials, but Mail assured them that the city’s processor — Casella Waste Systems, a Rutland, Vt., company with a Charlestown sorting facility — has invested $8 million in technology to keep the materials it gathers pure enough for sale to manufacturers. Glass, for instance, is sorted out five times before resale.

“Quality is not something we can compromise on in recycling,” Mail said.

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In addition to no sorting by residents and a subsequent increase in recycling, Mail pointed out other benefits of the toters, including less litter drifting out than happens with the current blue bins and a cleaner look curbside when recycling is put out for pickup.

They are secure enough that Harvard gave 2,600 to Allston residents for garbage, rather than recycling, when they complained of rat infestations resulting from construction work, economist and council candidate Charles Marquardt recalled.

There are so many benefits that communities around the country offer the toters free. Although they cost about $40 and $50, respectively, costing the city about $700,000 for some 60,000 toters, Peterson said, that would be minimized if it wins a state grant.

City Manager Robert W. Healy said acerbically that he would prefer residents pay for the toters, but testimony during the roundtable showed that to be strictly a minority view.

“I don’t know of any community that has charged the residents, because you want to minimize the barriers. The incentive is to reduce the trash,” Mail said.

For those who don’t want a toter delivered — for instance, if they feel they don’t have room for one — there are options to share one with a neighbor, convert a regular trash can by marking it for recycling or even to keep using the small blue bins, Mail said.

But the toters have fans.

“We have been getting so many requests,” Mail said. “More and more people are calling the office than we can give toterrs to.”

There are already some 4,000 toters in use throughout the city, and councillor Henrietta Davis knew firsthand of their popularity. She recounted a Seinfeldian tale of a friend who died recently — and how another acquaintance hoped to inherit the deceased’s toter.

“That’s a first,” Mail said.

Update: This post incorporates corrections suggested by Mail.