HANSON — What do you do with the town’s trash when recycling becomes an expensive problem?
The Board of Selectmen has begun discussing with the Board of Health ways to salvage its financially troubled transfer station as well as the environment with a two-pronged approach: find a way to make the facility solvent and possibly ban plastic grocery bags, if not polystyrene cups and plastic straws as well.
Town Administrator Michael McCue said the transfer station is two years away from a financial crisis.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that overseas recycling has been pretty much shut off and the cost of recycling has been that much more expensive,” McCue said. “The transfer station has had to rely on some of its retained earnings and I think a conversation needs to take place of how the two boards think we should move forward to contain the viability, on some level, of the transfer station. … We need to start the conversation.”
Options right now, according to Health Board member Arlene Dias, include continuing current practices, reducing transfer station hours to save money, returning operation costs to the tax base or explore regionalization. Looking to data on when the transfer station is most used can also guide when hours are most efficient.
“Better to start the conversation now, before we reach … the inevitable wall that we might be hitting,” McCue said. He indicated the next steps would include a working session between Selectmen and the Board of Health, along with members of the Finance Committee and town accountant to begin the planning process. A public forum is also planned, and a meeting Selectmen want to see happen first.
Town Accountant Todd Hassett said the facility is “treading water” this year, which includes an $86,000 tax subsidy and $57,000 drawdown of retained earnings.
“We’re at a point where, in two years, the retained earnings would be completely used up and we’d be looking at closer to $150,000 in tax subsidy to support the overall program,” he said.
China’s decision last year to halt acceptance of solid waste for recycling — due to contamination of materials not cleaned properly before being disposed of — has caused transfer station costs to skyrocket across the United States. Health officials are also concerned about the prospect of Rhode Island waste companies that now take trash from Massachusetts may also halt that one day.
“If we taught people to do a better job [recycling], we’d be better off,” Dias said.
“We’re talking about busy families,” Selectman Jim Hickey said. “That family is not going to rinse out the bottle of ketchup … it’s going to go in the recycling and they’re going to mix it with the plastic syrup container that they used.”
Dias said one of the Finance Committee’s members has advocated just closing the transfer station completely to save money.
Board of Health member Gil Amado said the system does work at the transfer station, and while recycling has changed throughout the world, the problems are cyclical.
“It comes back,” Amado said. “It goes in cycles and I think Hanson is very fortunate.”
While the Health Board members did not have figures at hand on how many residents use the facility, they do have that data and admit that transfer station use had been declining.
Still, there are people who have tried private haulers and prefer the transfer station. Dias said in her case, the one bag of trash she throws away separate from recycling was not enough to justify the cost of a private hauler and she went back to using the facility.
Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell said the town’s pay-as-you-throw program had been sold to the town on the promise that it would eventually become self-sustaining.
“Based on the numbers that I’ve seen — and you can show me different numbers — it’s not,” he said. “It’s going the other way.”
“I hate to reduce hours, because it feels like we’d be reducing service and we’ve got a lot of busy families out there,” Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “It’s a balance of economics and service. We really have to find the right balance there.”
Selectman Wes Blauss said that recycling efforts need not take as much time as people might think.
“I am a firm believer in the transfer station from when it was a dump up to now,” Blauss said. “You do it for the planet. We’re not going to get China back. We have to keep the transfer station viable.”
Selectman Matt Dyer said the transfer station is a needed service that the town must find a way to fund.
“Recyling is very near and dear to my heart,” Dyer said. “I don’t believe that getting rid of recycling is the way to go, either, because as we all know, we only have this limited amount of resources. … We’ve already messed up our planet enough. We need to suck it up and pay the right price.”
He suggested a town forum to gather more ideas for a solution to the problem.
Amado advocated, “throwing it back on the taxpayers.”
“Financially, I don’t see that as an option,” Mitchell said, noting the town can’t wait two years to arrive at a solution. “What I would like to see is, down the road … not closing it, keep it open a couple days for mattresses and tires, but then have residents be in charge of getting rid of their own trash.”
Health Board member Theresa Cocio said the elderly and people with smaller households that produce little trash and/or can’t afford a private hauler must be considered.
“Recycling is the biggest cost,” she said. It is now almost $20 more per ton than trash.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward,” said Dias, who is also the town’s representative to the South Shore Recycling Cooperative. “Every town is having the same problem.”
Town curbside pickup is unworkable because of Hanson’s geography, Amado said.
A plastic bag ban, one of the proposed Selectmen’s goals suggested by Blauss was also discussed, but Dias said South Shore Recycling sees the process for treating paper is much more harmful than plastic bags, a contention with which Dyer took issue.
While producing paper bags is polluting, it also does not use the oil from which plastic is manufactured and the lifespan of the products are vastly different.
“Paper bags are going to degrade in a couple of weeks and a plastic bag is going to sit in a tree and kill birds and cats …,” Dyer said. “Plastic bags go from the store to your car, from your car to inside, then they go in the trash. It’s a single-use [item] creating a bunch more waste.”
Almost 90 communities in the state, and most towns on the South Shore, already ban plastic bags, according to Dyer.
“We are the stewards of the Earth,” he said, also advocating the banning of polystyrene cups and plastic straws. “We already messed up the Earth so much, its time to correct our actions and move in a positive direction.”