It is one of the enduring pieces of Martha’s Vineyard lore: you take your recycling to the transfer station, separate it as directed into containers for plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum and so on, and then at the end of the day it all gets tossed in together and dumped.
Like glass, the myth recycles endlessly. But it is a myth.
So says an unbiased party, David Nash, board member of the Vineyard Conservation Society. And Mr. Nash should know a bit about the subject. He used to be the director of the program dealing with all permitting and enforcement of waste handling in Connecticut.
“You can be confident,” he wrote in a recent edition of the VCS newsletter, “that all recyclable materials are being properly transferred to off-Island facilities for further processing into raw materials for the plastic, glass, paper and metals markets.”
That’s the good news. The less good news is that the recycling effort on the Vineyard is still hampered by lack of agreement between the towns, by multiple collection regimes and by resulting confusion among those who live and visit here.
Four towns — Edgartown, West Tisbury Chilmark and Aquinnah — are part of one collection district. Oak Bluffs and Tisbury have another arrangement.
The key difference between the two, to the consumer’s eye, is that the four-town district appears more conscientious about maintaining separate recycling streams. It requires people to sort their recyclables more thoroughly, separating clear from colored glass, for example.
In Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, though, everything except paper and cardboard is co-mingled.
There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches, as it turns out. Co-mingling means the recycled material tends to be worth less when it is sold for reuse.
“Once you mix colored and clear glass, it’s colored forever,” said Mr. Nash. “Clear glass has a higher market value. So for that waste stream, yes they are creating a lower value product.”
Plus, of course, co-mingled material must be sorted at some point, and that sorting costs.
On the other hand, co-mingling makes things simpler for the public, particularly those who rely on curbside pickup of their recyclables.
And the evidence indicates that leads to higher rates of recycling.
The only town which now has curbside pickup is Tisbury, and the head of the town’s public works department, Fred LaPiana, says he believes Tisbury probably has the best record on recycling as a result. He would like to see it adopted Islandwide.
“When we first introduced co-mingling, six or seven years ago, rates went up about 10 per cent, because of the convenience.
“It costs money to do it, although it costs a heck of a lot less than [disposing of] garbage. So each town needs to, in their own way, figure out whether they want to pay for that curbside recycling out of the tax base or charge for it,” he said, adding:
“We do not charge for it.”
Tisbury provides a good case study of the multiple collection regimes that operate. The curbside pickup is done by town employees, but the material they collect is delivered to a transfer station jointly owned by Tisbury and Oak Bluffs and operated by a private contractor, Bruno’s.
From there it goes to an airport warehouse, for some pre-packaging — paper is baled, for example, before it is shipped off-Island to a picking station, where it is sorted by magnets and by hand.
Recycling left at Tisbury’s depot near the Park and Ride station, however, takes a different route, Mr. LaPiana said. It is collected by another company, Allied Waste, and taken to Edgartown, where it joins the waste from the other four towns.
The key difference, Mr. LaPiana said, is that “our contractor [Bruno’s] does the marketing, so he accepts the risk of a volatile market. A bit of a different model. They collect it and broker it in-house. They only contract out the trucking.”
All of which might seem to be of only academic interest except, as Mr. Nash points out, size is efficiency.
“Part of what we at VCS have been advocating is that everybody should get together, and it seems like they’re slowly moving in that direction. Because if they all had the contracts with the same people, their per-unit costs would go down.
“In most cases it’s about tonnage. The more you send the better the rates are.
“Here you have a case where Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, through Bruno’s have negotiated with somebody off-Island who takes everything mixed. The district — which is Edgartown, West Tisbury Chilmark and Aquinnah — is still going to people off-Island that take it a different way.”
In his article for the VCS newsletter, Mr. Nash noted that Allied Waste “is currently not outfitted to provide recycling pick up at the residential level, although they had recently offered on a trial basis and for an extra fee to do residential pickups.”
Nonetheless, like Mr. LaPiana, he is hopeful the towns are moving closer to a unified system.
Meanwhile, VCS is looking to other things it can do. It recently, finally persuaded the Steamship Authority to undertake recycling, for example.
Said Mr. Nash: “VCS is trying to support it by reaching out to the groups on Island that can have an impact. We don’t make it easy to recycle on the Island. I’m at Edgartown, for example, and I have to drive six miles down the road to drop off my recyclables. We should have satellite drop off centers much closer to residential areas..
Another initiative: at the recent annual Slow Food potluck fund-raiser, VCS not only made sure cans and bottles were recycled, they distributed biodegradeable items including cutlery. The organic waste, 60 gallons of it, was given to Island farms.
As for consumer advice, Mr. Nash suggested people keep an eye on haulers who collect their recyclables, to make sure they are doing the right thing.
“You need to make sure you watch the guys and see if they’re keeping it separate. And if they are not, call the office and ask why.
“The Vineyard is spread out. The trucks have to go down long dirt roads. If they get to the end and someone’s bin is full, they’re not going necessarily going to make a separate trip to get the recyclables,” he said.
And bear in mind that it is important to separate papers and corrugated cardboard, and that most other cardboard packaging — cereal cartons and the like — are not currently recyclable.