SALEM — The new mandatory recycling program has enjoyed a relatively smooth rollout, with the city having already diverted about 300 tons of waste for a savings of $20,000, program enforcement coordinator Jeff Cohen said in a recent interview.
The recycling ordinance was approved by the City Council in May and took effect on July 1. It requires residents to set out recycling with their trash at least once every two weeks. The ordinance included a three-month grace period during which Cohen and the city tried to educate the public about recycling, including through face-to-face meetings with residents and an advertisement campaign that aired on Salem Access Television.
Cohen was hired to his 18-month contract via monies from the Department of Environmental Protection and the city’s trash budget. During the grace period, he canvassed the city, measured “set-out” rates and educated people about recycling.
“I went to approximately 13,000 addresses and posted about 6,000 door hangers,” he said. “During that period, I spoke to about 2,800 people face-to-face and a lot of other people on phone calls.”
The city pays a little more than $60 a ton to dispose of trash, with the average person producing about that much each year. Recycling plastic, metal or glass costs the city nothing, and paper and cardboard can be sold for a profit of $20 a ton.
Salem’s recycling program is dual-stream, meaning paper and cardboard materials must be separated from plastic and other recyclables. Cohen said that communities with single-stream recycling programs — all materials are put curbside together — can’t sell their paper or cardboard.
The grace period ended on Sept. 30, after which Cohen began driving ahead of the recycling truck, determining which residents had correctly put theirs curbside and which hadn’t. He said that while it was difficult to gauge the citywide level of compliance with the program, the number of addresses that put out recycling has increased since the program’s inception.
“It’s very eye-opening to drive around the city before the recycling truck, because then you really know who’s recycling and who isn’t,” Cohen said.
Cohen has a variety of ways to reach those who aren’t, beginning with a door hanger that offers brief guidelines for the program. In the nearly three months since the grace period ended, he’s put out about 1,100 of them — or roughly one for every 13 addresses.
If a house still doesn’t begin recycling, Cohen calls the resident, sends explanations of the city ordinance and issues warning letters. The final option is a $25 fine.
“If somebody doesn’t comply two weeks in a row, I start the process,” he said.
So far, the 1,100 door hangers have led to 500 phone calls, 400 emailed explanations, 200 warning letters and a total of eight fines — four of which were abated when people agreed to recycle.
“My intention is not to raise money,” Cohen said. “We’re trying to save money.”
Cohen stressed that the city saves money every time a piece of refuse is diverted from trash to recycling, so he isn’t just concerned with getting more people to recycle, but also with making sure they’re doing it fully and correctly.
Still, one problem is that people put out too many things that don’t belong. Plastic bags, dirty pizza boxes, Styrofoam and straws are all materials that can be recycled, just not under the city’s system. Cohen said plastic bags should be returned to the store they came from, arrangements for Styrofoam can be located at www.refoamit.com, and pizza boxes and straws can go in the trash for now.
Other items like air conditioners, refrigerators and computers can’t be put curbside either, but they can be taken to the Department of Public Works at 5 Jefferson Ave. between 8 a.m. and noon on the last Saturday of each month. The free “E-waste” recycling program lasts until June, after which a small fee will likely be instituted.
At least some addresses will presumably divert more waste from their trash when the city begins a pilot compost program early next year. Under that plan, up to 1,500 households will be provided a bin to collect food scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and other items.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at email@example.com.