Sunday, May 18, 2008

Recycling On Main St.? Not Really. Part I

(Part I below; originally published on on Sept. 06 2007)
Part II - 09.08.07 Working On The Recycling Issue Downtown
Part III - 09.27.07 Revisting The Recycling Iniative On Main St.
Part IV - 10.22.07 New Recycling Bins Now On Main St.

This is the second installment of an ongoing series about the streetscape in downtown Northampton, MA. In this post, we focus on the recycling barrels on Main St., and find that the three year old city recycling initiative on Main St. has been rendered completely ineffective due to a lack of effective oversight. Cutting to the chase, this is what we found:

  • the barrels are broken.
  • barrels are being improperly used.
  • are not marked as recycling containers.
  • the city does not have an agreement with anyone to empty the barrels.
  • and when emptied, the contents inside were brought to the landfill, not a recycling center.
On June 12th, 2004, the Gazette dutifully reported on the new recycling containers placed on Main St. There was a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Photographs were taken, and people were understandably hopeful for a new, greener, downtown area. Young students who worked on the project spoke with pride about the example Northampton was setting, and the beneficial impact on the environment this would have, by recycling material and reducing waste in the landfill. The owner of Duseau Trucking was on hand, as they had graciously agreed to donate their time and services to empty the barrels.

The reporters left, the officials at City Hall went back into their offices, and the barrels were left downtown to fend for themselves. As you can imagine, things didn't work out at well as was initially hoped for.

Three years have passed since Northampton, MA placed three recycling barrels downtown on Main St. Conflicting reports from the Gazette and Smith College put the number at two or five, respectively. At this time, there are three on Main St. One hiding from view in front of City Hall, one in front of Thornes, and one in front of Sam's Pizza. At least two more identical barrels are in the parking garage being used as trash receptacles, so it appears that the report by Smith College of five barrels is the correct one.

The initiative was started by Claudine Solin, for her graduate project while a student in the School for Social Work at Smith College. With help from the American Friends Service Committee [PDF here] and ten students from the Environmental Politics class at the Florence Learning Center, a program affiliated with Northampton High School, the project was completed. And for as long as we can remember, the recycling bins have operated as trash barrels, and not as recycling containers. Often overflowing, the barrels could not even receive bottles and cans if they wanted to.

Quickly, the barrels became broken and without purpose from a lack of oversight. The lids attached to four of them, which distinguished that only bottles and cans were to enter, either broke off, or were removed. The liners inside that allowed Duseau Trucking to empty the contents were removed. The barrels collected rubbish not meant for them. Duseau still emptied them as agreed, though now full of all manner of trash, including the recyclable material meant for the barrels, we learned that the contents were brought to the landfill, not a recycling center. So the contents in the barrels, meant to accept recyclables and reduce waste in the landfill, did no such thing.

Early this week, Northamptonist went to see the Parking Director about this. We expressed our concern that the barrels on Main St. were not being maintained or emptied. He called Duseau Trucking, as at that time, they were under verbal agreement to empty the barrels. After the phone call was made to Duseau, the Parking Director informed us that Duseau was going to empty them. The next day, it was clear they had been emptied. The Director noted that the Solid Waste Coordinator for the city was working with the Pedal People, -a local bicycle powered hauling service- in an attempt come to agreement with them for emptying the recycling barrels, as the Pedal People are already under contract with the city to empty the trash receptacles on Main St.

A few days passed, and the barrels were quickly filling up with trash again. We spoke with people at Duseau Trucking, and asked them if their was a regular dumping schedule for these. We were informed that as of this time, they no longer have an agreement with the City of Northampton to empty the barrels.

Our next conversations were with Karen Bouquillon, Solid Waste Coordinator for the City of Northampton. During our conversation, we expressed our concern that the barrels on Main St. are not being used properly, nor being emptied regularly, and requested that someone take responsibility for the disposal and maintenance of them. Karen agreed, stated that she was working on this issue, and filled in some back story for us. Initially, she told us, these barrels were locked and monitored. It is unclear why the barrels are no longer locked, have liners, or what happened to their covers. She also noted that before these barrels were placed on Main St., the city used to have recycling containers in other areas downtown which also proved ineffective, due to their placement and lack of obvious purpose. As opposed to laying blame for this on any individuals, she stated that past and current barrels' ineffectiveness as recycling containers, and their lack of maintenance, was a failure of the system. She is now focusing her efforts on an improved system, which is currently underway, making recycling bins available in most city parks and in downtown. If a failure of the system is not to plague this effort, there is no doubt about it, individuals will have to monitor the program. Someone needs to take notes, be mindful, review the system regularly, and make adjustments when needed.

In a follow up phone call, we alerted Karen to our findings that at this time, no one is emptying the recycling barrels downtown, and we asked her if she knew who was. She didn't. We also sent her an email asking her why Duseau Trucking is no longer in agreement with the City of Northampton to continue emptying the barrels, and have not received a response at this time.

As of yesterday evening, we could find no one in the City who is claiming responsibility for the emptying the recycling barrels on Main St. Not Duseau, not the Pedal People, not the DPW, not the Honor Court, and not the Parking Dep't. In the interim, I could imagine that Parking Dep't employees might pick up that task, as emptying the trash containers is something they used to do after the Honor Court stopped doing it, and before the Pedal People won the contract.

As mentioned above earlier, part of the new effort towards recycling undertaken by the City's Solid Waste Coordinator is placing more recycling bins on public property, which is underway. If you look at many city parks, you will see a recycling bin of a different kind. The barrels are a mesh wire, allowing easy viewing of the contents, and clearly marked as recycling containers. The city has received 60 of these barrels already, at a cost of $177.00 each. It is our understanding that the City will be placing a few of these in the downtown area, which should facilitate a notable recycling effort by members of the public, and allow for a large decrease in material destined for the landfills. We learned that the Solid Waste Coordinator purchased these bins from MassCor, a contractor from the Bureau of Prison. Unfortunately, after looking at MassCor's site online, we found they use a workforce that consists exclusively of prison labor. We also noted, interestingly enough, that purchases made from MassCor are exempt from the usual bidding process. That raises questions for us. Was the purchase made through MassCor with the intent of circumventing the usual bidding process? What benefit would the city receive by doing so?

Those questions would be best answered by the local investigative reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Northamptonist will continue our focus on issues of concern for us. The recycling program for public spaces in Northampton is an effort long overdue. We have no doubt the positive effects it will have for Northampton will be many, and will serve to inspire nearby municipalities to follow suit. We are heartened to see the attention being given to it as of late by the City's Solid Waste Coordinator, and hope that City Gov't will commence to take an active interest in this issue, honoring and being responsible for the program that three years ago, many young, area students effectively gave their time and effort to revitalize. However brief it may have been.