Waste Wars: How the 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan Is Shaping the Future of Trash in MA

 

All you have to do is point,” claims 1-800-Got-Junk. Well, not exactly, at least not in Massachusetts.  Here, we study our trash, sort it, treasure it, and, more recently, debate it.  And that is not a bad thing, at least for some of us. If you love trash as much as we do (or even if you hate it), then by all means, read the more than 85 comments that have been filed on MassDEP’s draft 2030 Solid Waste Master Plan.  

Slogging through the 117 pages of comments can be tedious, but to us they are informative, entertaining, and, most importantly, illuminate the huge divide between industry, environmentalists and public officials on this otherwise mundane topic.  Luckily, you can read this absolutely unbiased and neutral summary.  Even better, you can call any one of us here at Mackie Shea Durning, PC to get the inside scoop on the state of waste in the Commonwealth.

The governing statute, M.G.L. c. 16, § 21, passed as part of the Solid Waste Act of 1987, St. 1987, c. 584,  provides, in part, that: “[t]he comprehensive statewide master plan referred to herein shall describe, to the maximum practicable extent, a short and long-range program for disposal of solid waste throughout the commonwealth, the solid waste facilities which the department determines to be necessary or convenient to the disposal of such waste in a manner which protects the public health, safety and environment and is financially sound, and the funding for the development of such facilities which the department finds to be reasonable necessary.” In brief, we believe that the draft 2030 Master Plan meets this legal threshold, even if it relies upon out-of-state disposal facilities as “necessary or convenient to the disposal of such waste  . . .” Nor do any of the commenters claim that the MassDEP has failed to fulfill its statutory mandate.  However, some commenters assert that the Department is obligated to go further in order to satisfy the greenhouse gas reduction requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act.  For example, industry commenters decry the fact that about 21% of our waste is exported out-of-state, an expensive proposition with a large carbon footprint. They complain that the moratorium on new energy from waste capacity increases greenhouse gas emissions when waste is hauled long distances to out-of-state disposal facilities.  Environmental organizations counter that continued reliance on landfilling and combustion, as opposed to waste reduction and reuse, creates its own greenhouse gas problems.  

The principle divide in comments on the draft 2030 Master Plan is between industry pleas to lift the moratorium on new waste to energy capacity in order to improve in-state disposal capacity, countered by environmentalists’ insistence that to truly achieve their “Zero Waste” goal, no new capacity should be developed and that all existing waste to energy plants and landfills should be shuttered.  

The draft 2030 Master Plan really does not directly address either of these divergent points of view.  It certainly embraces the core concept of waste reduction by targeting a 90% reduction in disposal by 2050, but it also pragmatically recognizes the trend of increasing export of waste to distant states.  Since we face diminishing in-state capacity to trash the trash, and apparently little appetite in the public or private sector to take on the challenges of developing a new end facility to handle the dregs here in the Bay State, the draft 2030 Master Plan essentially acknowledges that rail is rapidly becoming a critical component of the state’s solid waste infrastructure.  The overwhelming industry trend right now is to permit rail handling facilities intended to take advantage of the lower rail transportation costs to landfills with large capacities and lower tipping fees in Ohio and other distant states, which the Commonwealth officially deems to be available capacity for Massachusetts waste. (While the majority of Bay State waste will head for the mid-west or south, Massachusetts will continue to truck a fair amount of waste to Waste Management’s Turnkey Landfill, just over the border in Rochester, New Hampshire, and to the landfills in Western New York State.)

Net Export Policy:  Back in the day, one of the policy goals of the Beyond 2000 Master Plan was that “on balance we should be neither a net importer nor a net exporter of trash.”  By the time the 2010 Master Plan entitled “Pathway to Zero Waste” was finalized in 2013, the MassDEP’s focus had shifted from providing for our own disposal capacity to “reducing waste and by recycling and composting more, [so that] we can reduce our need for overall disposal capacity and reduce the amount of waste that we will need to ship to other states for disposal as Massachusetts disposal capacity diminishes.”

Long gone now are those Yankee philosophy days “that we should take responsibility for managing our own solid waste.”  (If you nostalgically yearn for those days, I have a Victrola and some 78 records I would be happy to sell you.) Both industry and environmental groups criticize this de-facto export policy, for diametrically opposed reasons. Industry identifies the risk of import restrictions or market changes outside of Massachusetts’ control; whereas, environmental groups fear that continued exports will create a system with a vested interest in continued export for disposal that will undercut domestic waste reduction initiatives.

Recycling/MRFs/Organics:  Given its continued reliance on recycling, it is ironic that the draft 2030 Master Plan really does not grapple with the effects of China Sword on the recycling markets. Rather than take on the difficulties of the collapsed international market in recycled commodities, the Department is shifting its focus to remedies at home to try to improve the quality of recycled materials and develop markets.  To do so, it will develop working groups to produce comprehensive plans to foster source reduction and reuse opportunities and the development of markets.  The Department also intends to continue to use existing tools, such as grants and loans and new collaborations/partnerships to develop markets for food material, furniture and other bulky materials, glass, and textiles.  Commenters emphasized the need to invest further in recycling based, in part, upon the conclusion of the Massachusetts Materials Management Capacity Study that we are using 100% of available in-state recycling capacity.  (One would expect that we would have plenty of recycling or material recovery facility (MRF) capacity, given the relatively low permitting barriers to entry, but the unstable commodities markets for recycled materials appears to have stifled investment.)  Although most of the Department’s initiatives along these lines are universally supported, a proposal to mandate that all haulers provide recycling services raised concern among the haulers. As part of its waste reduction strategy, the draft 2030 Master Plan calls for a significant increase in organics diversion, including a planned expansion of the food waste disposal ban to capture much more organic material.  (The Department can take comfort in the fact that the Materials Management Capacity Study reported ample organics processing capacity.  However, the Department’s organics management framework has not escaped criticism by the environmental community, which argues strenuously against continued anaerobic digestion of food waste with biosolids, particularly in light of recent concerns about PFAS in biosolids and inability to reuse the resultant organic products.)

Energy from Waste:  Ten years ago in the “Pathway to Zero Waste,” the state opened its arms to new technologies, like pyrolysis and gasification. But nobody has taken up that opportunity. The moratorium on conventional energy from waste plants will remain in effect, except to the extent the seven existing plants will eventually need replacement.  However, continued reliance on energy from waste is not guaranteed. The Department intends to review the need for existing energy from waste facilities every five years and to require any replacement plants to meet more stringent efficiency and emission standards. As noted above, several environmental organizations are calling for the closure of the existing plants and that the partial lifting of the moratorium be ended, so that no new plants can be built.  The commenters continue to assert that emissions from energy from waste plants harm human health (particularly in the environmental justice communities, where some E from W facilities are located) and that they discourage the waste reduction and recycling that will be needed to achieve “Zero Waste.”

Landfills:  Although there is no official state mandated moratorium in place, there seems to be an unofficial municipal or private sector moratorium on new landfill capacity, since there are no current proposals for a new or significantly expanded MSW landfill.  Bourne and Crapo Hill are the two exceptions, with Bourne likely devoted to SEMASS ash and Crapo Hill husbanding its capacity for its Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse District member communities and limited outside MSW. Again, based upon their concerns over environmental and health impacts, the environmental organizations comments advocate for the phasing out of landfills as part of their vision for a Zero Waste future.

(It seems ironic to the author that Western and Central Massachusetts host only one MSW landfill, when just a decade ago, they were primo trash destinations.  What remains is only Waste Management’s Westminster Fitchburg landfill up north, with four years of remaining capacity. The Southeast Region hosts three municipal landfills: Bourne and Crapo Hill, mentioned above, and the small Middleboro landfill, run by Waste Management.  Nantucket takes care of island MSW.  And, of course, the Boston area, encompassed in the Northeast Region, would never agree to host an MSW landfill. Apparently, until Zero Waste is achieved, Hubsters will have to remain content to have their trash shipped out-of-state or converted to energy at one of the three energy-from-waste plants in the Region.)

New Waste Bans:  Within the next few years, the Department is going to propose additional bans on the transfer and disposal of organics, and perhaps mattresses and textiles. Commenters were generally very supportive of the state’s intention to double down on the existing organics ban to make it applicable to generators of one-half ton per week of food waste, which will capture many more generators and more organics volume than the existing one-ton per week applicability threshold.  However, certain environmental organizations generally argued that the state should go further and implement a ban on disposal of any food waste.  At least one industry commenter advocated for loosening of the restrictions on use of digestate from on-farm digesters.

Extended Producer Responsibility:  We would be remiss if we did not praise the 2030 draft Master Plan’s overarching goal to reduce waste 90% by 2050 as both good and ambitious. The goal relies, in part, on extended producer responsibility requirements that will admittedly require legislation.  Because Massachusetts is only a small part of the wider economy, ambitious plans to require companies, such as Amazon (whose gross sales equate to about one-half of Massachusetts’ GDP), to reconfigure all of its packaging, are unrealistic.  But less ambitious take-back initiatives, for paint, electronics and carpet should be achievable.  While some of these changes may isolate Massachusetts in the short-term, in the long-term, the Commonwealth will be able to take advantage of its early adopter status.  In a preface of legislative battles to come, comments from packaging producers embraced the Department’s use of “pay as you throw” programs and increased support for recycling, but did not endorse any form of packaging producer responsibility legislation.  

Climate Change:  Achieving the waste reduction goal will be key to the Commonwealth actually living up to the mandate of the Global Warming Solutions Act, to reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2050.  As in the case of waste export, both environmental groups and industry commenters jumped on the GHG reduction bandwagon, but for very different reasons.  Pragmatically expecting the need for continued waste disposal, industry commented that development of in-state capacity is essential to reduce GHG emissions from long-haul transportation (and E from W touted its GHG advantages over landfilling).  In a more puritanical approach, environmental groups want to eliminate waste disposal entirely to avoid the GHG emissions associated with excess production, consumption and disposal of goods.  Regardless, the changes in producer responsibility and materials management required to meet the MassDEP’s 90% waste reduction goal will pale in comparison to the economy-wide changes necessary to reduce GHG emissions to levels called for in the Global Warming Solutions Act. 

Whether future legislators and governors will have the political will to make the requisite drastic changes, is in serious doubt.  It was not that long ago, when the embattled Fall River Mayor backed off the City’s controversial purple bag “pay as you throw” program on the eve of his recall election.  Imagine the political backlash when voters are required to leave their cars at home and take mass transit to work.  

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