Cambridge has curbside recycling and composting in addition to trash pickup. (Photo: Martha Henry)

Cambridge residents have reduced the amount of trash they throw out by 30 percent in around a dozen years – meeting the city’s goal and beating its deadline by a year.

The goal of a 30 percent trash reduction by 2020 was adopted by the city in 2009, using the prior year as a baseline. On Feb. 14, the city announced that last year, Cambridge households – on average, two people – threw out 15.6 pounds of waste, down 32 percent from 22.8 pounds per household per week in 2008.

“People are being more conscientious about what they’re doing and more deliberate about finding ways to divert items,” said Mike Orr, Cambridge’s recycling director. “Two of the big pieces are curbside recycling improvements, and then the introduction of curbside composting.”

Cambridge moved to single-stream recycling in 2010. Citywide curbside composting started in 2018.

“Cambridge has the food diversion program. I’m sure that’s a large part of why less trash is going to disposal,” said Amy Perlmutter, a Cambridge resident and the lead consultant on Boston’s Zero Waste Plan. “Food waste tends to be about a third of the waste stream, so with the 30 percent reduction, that would fit.”

“It’s a great achievement,” said city councillor Quinton Zondervan, who served as president and board chair of Green Cambridge from 2011 to 2017. “It’s also impressive because we’ve actually been increasing our population over that time period, so even though we’ve added more people, we’ve reduced the amount of trash, so that’s exciting.”

In addition to recycling and composting, Cambridge introduced the Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance in 2016. Free mattress recycling began in April. According to the city, 5,000 mattresses have been collected to date, reducing trash by 250,000 pounds.

What is and isn’t counted

The city’s orange trucks pick up trash from Cambridge houses, public schools and municipal buildings. Apartment and condo buildings can use city pickup if trash is placed in totters at the curb, though many residential buildings opt for private pickup. “We do serve a lot of them for recycling,” Orr said. “Recycling is free to larger buildings, so there’s a strong incentive for them to use it.”

The city does not track commercial waste, or waste from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hospitals and other institutions.

Ambitious 2050 goal

With the 2020 goal achieved a year early, the Department of Public Works is focused on reaching the 2050 goal of an 80 percent reduction in trash, which would mean a drop from the baseline 22.8 pounds per household per week in 2008 to only 4.6 pounds per household per week in 2050.

“In 2008, saying we needed to reduce our trash 30 percent by 2020 was a huge leap forward,” Orr said. “The runway for that was 12 years. The runway for 2050 is 30 years. We’ve got more time to work with, but we need to keep our foot on the pedal.”

DPW is considering a number of options, including textile recycling, offering composting to large buildings and simply maximizing current programs. “Once we introduce programs, how do we then optimize them? How do we get everyone’s participation?” Orr asked.

“Reducing plastic waste is a big challenge,” Zondervan said. “Getting rid of single-use plastics would go a long way to reducing our trash.”

“We need to really change the culture, to change the way people think, to change behavior,” Perlmutter said. “We need to reinforce the message of recycling. It’s not just something you do at home; it’s something you can do in every aspect of your life. And it’s not just about bottles and cans. It about all kinds of things: food, textiles, electronics. I see opportunity in reaching out and working with other sectors because that’s going to reinforce what we do at home.”


Martha Henry is a member of Cambridge’s Recycling Advisory Committee and writes about recycling and consumption.

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