October 22, 2015: Belmont’s Recycling Program Merits Keeping

Belmont Citizen-Herald: October 22, 2015

A recent Op Ed piece in the New York Times suggests that while people who recycle “probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment,” it is “in fact wasting your time.”  NYT columnist John Tierney unabashedly asserts that “recycling has been relentlessly promoted as. . .an unalloyed public good and private virtue” but “otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.”

Belmont, a community with a robust recycling program, should reject Tierney’s conclusions both on an individual level and as a matter of public policy.

Belmont significantly expanded its curbside recycling program in 2008.  Officials noted at that time that “because the town must pay $70/ton of refuse shipped for incineration, boosting recycling has the potential to save the town tens of thousands of dollars…”  Using those cost savings, in 2012, the town hired a Recycling Coordinator to focus on increasing residential and municipal recycling.  During Calendar Year 2014, the town recycled 5,886 tons, 44% of its total residential solid waste stream; Belmont’s 2013 recycling rate was 37%.

There are certain unassailable “truths” about the need for, and impact of, recycling today.  For example, in 2010, Americans used 426 billion plastic water bottles.  Recycling all of those would have offset the greenhouse gases for 1.065 million round-trip airline flights between New York and London.  Since the actual recycling rate for such bottles is only about 30%, the GHG offset was in reality only 340,000 roundtrips. Americans, however, use (and recycle) a plethora of other plastic bottles (such as both dish and laundry detergents).  However calculated, the total GHG emissions offset is substantial.

We need, however, to acknowledge recycling’s limitations.  Just as the price of oil, the price of housing, and the price of all other goods and services varies over time, so, too, does the price of recycled materials.  Sometimes curbside recycling is economical when compared to garbage collection (and landfill disposal or incineration) and sometimes it is not.  Short-term price fluctuations, however, should not affect Belmont’s community recycling policies. In the long-term, the only reason that landfill disposal / incineration might be financially competitive with recycling, at all, is because its price places no value on the environmental degradation resulting from disposal and incineration, or on the health consequences arising from that despoliation.

Nonetheless, as one national environmental advocate observes, a danger arises when “avid recyclers…feel more self-righteously virtuous than the benefits of recycling warrant.”  I happen to agree with the Environmental Defense Fund (concededly, an organization I have worked with some over the years) that “recycling is not a panacea for our environmental problems to be pursued at any cost…”

However, we should always bear in mind the bigger picture.  Called “materials management,” this big picture urges people to Reduce usage where possible, Reuse when appropriate, and Recycle when discarding.  It is through this growing Reduce/Re-use/Recycle mindset that Americans have reduced their per-person waste generation by eight percent since 2000.

In addition, there can be no question but that recycling has become an important part of our national economy.  Supporting more than 470,000 jobs, and producing $11.2 billion in tax revenues, the recycling industry generates $105.8 billion in annual economic activity.  According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, that places recycling on par with the data processing and hosting industry, the dental industry, and the automotive repair industry.

Belmont’s Vision Statement, adopted by Town Meeting in 2001, proclaims that Belmont aspires to “be an environmentally responsible community.”  An aggressive and comprehensive town-supported recycling program is one critical aspect of pursuing that aspiration.

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October 8, 2015: Requiem for a good friend of local parks

Belmont Citizen-Herald: October 8, 2015

It is with great sadness that I report last week’s passing away of a good friend to local parks. When Congress approved last-minute funding to keep the federal government open for another few months, it failed to include dollars for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  At midnight on September 30th, the LWCF expired.

The LWCF was created by a large bipartisan Congressional majority in 1964.  In the past 50 years, the Fund has invested nearly $17 billion in federal, state and local parks.  The LWCF repaired a broken sewer system to keep a local beach open; funded local walking trails; and purchased land for national parks and monuments.  The LWCF funded nearly 90% of the National Memorial in Storystown, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 crashed on 9/11.  It funded nearly two-thirds of the Appalachian Trail.  Overall, in its 50 year history, the LWCF supported more than 42,000 projects in 98% of the counties throughout the nation.

All of this was accomplished while costing taxpayers not one thin dime.  The LWCF is. . .or rather was. . .funded entirely by royalties from the offshore oil and gas industry.

Until the very end, the LWCF remained a popular program.  Recently, 67 U.S. Senators signed a letter to their colleagues supporting the LWCF’s renewal.  In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution, sponsored by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (amongst others), supporting the program.  The Mayors properly noted that “parks support public health, workforce development, local economies, the environment, education, and community cohesion, which are critical to creating resilient, livable and vibrant cities.”

Much has been said in recent months about “green space” in Belmont.  The most obvious discussion has related to the relative merits of competing green space proposals for Belmont Center.  Other local issues, however, should not get lost in the shadow of that Belmont Center debate.  The Grove Street Park comprehensive planning process, which must balance the preservation of green space with the provision of space for active recreation, has been in play for some time.  A letter writer to the Citizen-Herald expressed concern this summer about the seeming lack of attention devoted to maintaining Clay Pit Pond.  Just a few years back, Town Meeting was asked to weigh two legitimate but competing interests, the preservation of the historic Clark House versus the preservation of the open space along the train tracks by the Lion’s Club.

Though perhaps smaller in magnitude than Belmont’s big ticket open space issues such as the preservation of the McLean open space and the effort to preserve the Belmont Uplands, the intensity of feeling generated by each of these issues only goes to show, right here in Belmont, that the Conference of Mayors was correct when it referenced the role of parks and open space in “creating resilient, livable and vibrant” communities.

The demise of the LWCF presents clear local lessons for Belmont.  What we may assume is permanent, indeed universally acclaimed, can be lost almost before you realize it.  Moreover, what is lost is generally lost for good.  With these thoughts in mind, perhaps it is time for Belmont to update its “five-year” open space and recreation plan (last updated seven years ago).  Perhaps it is time, also, to think more about where “open space” planning fits into the operation of Town government. It would seem to be outside the purview of the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and Recreation Commission, each of which has its related, but more narrowly focused, job to do.

In the meantime, rest in peace, LWCF.  Let us learn what we can from your life and untimely passing.