BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro is a town with curbside pick-up of recyclables, a mandatory recycling ordinance, and a population largely concerned with environmental issues — yet only 19 percent of its residents recycle.
The new town recycling coordinators, Moss Kahler and Cindy Sterling, seek to raise that 19 to a full 100 percent.
This winter, the duo has begun working to identify which habits or systems contribute to the low rate.
The town enacted a recycling ordinance in the 1990s, making recycling mandatory. For years, the town has lightly enforced the ordinance, said Sterling.
Kahler and Sterling plan to glean data that will help them launch new initiatives and prepare residents for stricter enforcement of the town’s mandatory recycling ordinance that begins March 1.
For want of a PAYT
At this year’s Representative Annual Town Meeting, representatives voted to create a recycling coordinator position to aid residents in the transition to the newly approved pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) trash disposal system.
Representatives generally agreed that if the town expected residents to pay for special trash bags, it also needed to help them save money by increasing recycling.
Voters later overruled PAYT in a special referendum vote. However, the recycling coordinator position, funded for one year, remained.
With the town not intending to fund the position beyond one year, Sterling said the ultimate goal for her and Kahler is to make the improvements to Brattleboro’s recycling system sustainable.
The coordinators came to the position separately but are glad to be working together.
Sterling, program director for the Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD), had her full-time position cut to 25 hours last March when the district lost a grant it had received for 11 years.
She was looking to complement her hours in July when Town Manager Barbara Sondag approached her about applying for the town recycling coordinator position.
Sterling thought that the position sounded like a win-win. She could focus her waste management experience, usually reserved for the entire district, on one town.
But she had reservations. Sterling said she felt she lacked local knowledge of Brattleboro because she lives in New Hampshire.
Kahler led the charge against PAYT. Although he opposed that disposal system, he favors recycling and believes Brattleboro can do better.
“So I thought I should put my money where my mouth is,” he said.
Kahler worried that his applying for the position would put Sondag in “a tough spot,” because they fell on opposing sides of the PAYT issue. But he thinks his background in recycling, and his history as a former Selectboard member and Brattleboro resident, tipped the scales in his favor.
Kahler describes Sondag’s decision to split the job into two part-time positions as “a stroke of brilliance.” He and Sterling agree that the job would be “overwhelming” for one person.
Riding the route
The coordinator job is “front-end loaded,” Kahler said, requiring the new recruits to gather data, contact community organizations, and assess residents’ current habits.
A 19 percent recycling rate is considered low when you have a municipal curbside pick-up program, plus the ability to drop items off 24/7 at WSWMD’s Old Ferry Road facility, said Sterling.
Kahler spent two cold mornings riding the route with Andre Smith, Brattleboro resource recovery transportation facilitator with Triple T Trucking, the Brattleboro-based rubbish removal company contracted to pick up recycling at the curb. Kahler said the trip helped him see which households recycle.
Those belonging to the households that don’t are “the people who have to change their habits the most,” said Kahler.
He said many households sort their recyclables incorrectly or toss in items not accepted by the district.
A common mistake Kahler noticed is households that have all the right items sorted properly in their green recycling bins but improperly stash all their overflow items on the curb in plastic bags.
Kahler said these bags can “gum up” the District’s sorting machine.
Residents also put waxy milk and juice containers out for recycling that should go to the WSWMD’s Project COW (Commercial Organic Waste) compost drop off. People are also tossing unaccepted items like aluminum products, non-grocery related molded plastic, and Styrofoam into their green recycling bins.
Kahler said he learned from his field trip that recycling habits, good and bad, tend to be determined by neighborhood. Sterling said some of their educational efforts will target these underperforming areas of town.
Kahler said even some families he knows who are avid recyclers incorrectly sort the items they place curbside.
Sterling said some people have the misconception that they don’t need to sort their recyclables because they all go to the same facility. The WSWMD’s facility doesn’t have the staffing to sort everything in one lump, she noted.
She feels that, for many households, a little education is all it will take to change them into stellar recyclers.
“We intend in these next three months to push in a media campaign the information people need to recycle properly,” said Kahler.
Sterling said it helps that a local hauling company won the town’s hauling contract.
The previous hauler, Waste Management Inc., confused residents because it took recycling items to Keene, N.H., which accepted different items from those that WSWMD processes.
Kahler feels the town’s contract with Triple T Trucking will help the recycling numbers rise. He said the owner and manager understand there may be some big changes on the horizon for residents and are willing to make adjustments.
Sterling and Kahler plan to conduct a survey to understand where Brattleboro stands on recycling, residents’ current recycling behaviors, what they think works, and how the program can improve.
This data will inform the team’s new programs in the spring.
Sterling said the WSWMD has a handle on how to assess and deal with illegal dumping, if any occurs — a concern raised during the PAYT debates.
“No one wants to be told what to do with their trash,” Sterling said.
But she hopes people will remember that recycling has value.
Good recycling helps the district save money, she notes. The district passes its savings onto the municipalities in the form of lower districting and tipping fees, resulting in lower taxes.
Kahler and Sterling are looking for volunteers to fill two-hour shifts in December and January to help survey people dropping recycling at the Old Ferry Road site. A survey will also be mailed to residents.
Following the rules
Smith, the only Triple T driver picking up recyclables, has done impromptu sorting of items improperly set on the curb. But Kahler said this will stop.
Come March 1, Triple T will enforce Brattleboro’s mandatory recycling ordinance more forcefully, the coordinators warned.
Sterling hopes education will be the only enforcement needed for residents to properly adhere to the ordinance.
She said the first planned level of enforcement would entail Smith leaving unaccepted recyclables curbside with a sticker explaining why they were not picked up.
“We hope that’s all they’ll need as an education piece,” Sterling said.
Sterling said she and Kahler will meet with repeat offenders one-on-one to discuss how to remedy the situation. Even though the recycling ordinance allows for some “hefty fines,” Sterling hopes she and Kahler will never need to dole them out.
“We would like to avoid that part of the stick. We’d prefer to use carrots,” Sterling said.
Kahler agrees and feels fining households for not recycling is akin to buying a PAYT bag. He said he and Sterling are developing a plan to reward star recycling households.
Kahler knows that, for some, having the mandatory recycling bylaw enforced will come as a big change.
It will take these people more time to sort items, he said, “but it doesn’t take a long time.”