Needham Recycling and Transfer Station/ Credit: Needham Observer

Whether single-family, duplex or multiunit building, all households need to get rid of trash. While some residents use private haulers, others haul it themselves to the Recycling & Transfer Station (RTS) on Central Avenue.

In 2022, Town Meeting voted to fund a survey of how residents want to dispose of their trash, but the $50,000 it appropriated yielded no bids. Department of Public Works Director Carys Lustig said they plan to send out the survey to residents again in early spring.

“It’s probably been more than 20 years since we’ve surveyed the community to see if the drop-off model is the service-delivery model that people wanted,” she said.

Lustig said a third party crafting the questions and conducting the survey would give the process more credibility, and the questions will have to be phrased carefully.

”If we asked a question like, ‘Would you like free pickup?,’ everyone would say yes, but that may not be doable under current financing. We want people to understand that there will be tradeoffs,” she explained. “Additionally, we have some expenses that are coming up at the RTS that are fairly significant, so it makes sense to look at how we’re providing service now before we reinvest in that facility.”

RTS Superintendent Matt DeMarrais/ Credit: Needham Observer

Those expenses include replacing the main building, purchasing a new waste dozer and replacing the temporary trailer that houses the scale operator, the foreman and Superintendent Matt DeMarrais.

DeMarrais estimates that about 5,500 households use the RTS for all their weekly household trash, and probably an equal number have weekly collection. Many of the people who get a weekly collection at their household use the RTS for yard waste, bulky items and or hard-to-recycle items like mattresses, textiles or fluorescent bulbs. 

DeMarrais, who ran track at Needham High School and majored in English in college, is now an avid reader of literature about waste disposal and recycling. He operates the RTS in rapidly shifting local and global conditions. Prices for recyclables are volatile and options for the disposal of solid waste are disappearing. 

Almost all of Needham’s solid waste, whether brought to the RTS in private vehicles or collected by commercial haulers, ends up at the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Millbury.

According to Dan Matthews, a Select Board member from 1999-2022, Needham is the largest community in the state where residents drop off their trash or pay someone to pick it up.

“We’ve been talking about curbside pickup for more than a generation,” said Matthews. “The current approach has worked well. The money we saved we put into the schools.”

DeMarrais said a switch to town-sponsored curbside pickup would bring about dramatic changes at the RTS. “At the RTS, we can offer a huge sweep of service every day we’re open.

“There are a lot of conversations about recycling being a failure, but that’s not really an accurate statement,” DeMarrais said. “The recycling rates here are very high.”

Currently the town receives $38 a ton for cardboard and $8 a ton for paper. With curbside pickup the town would currently be paying $68 a ton to sort the single-stream recyclables. 

Food recycling at the RTS/ Credit: Needham Observer

“With curbside pickup, you’ll get more tonnage but it won’t be as usable,” DeMarrais said. 

 “A lot of millennials have probably never been to the RTS,” said Jeff Heller, who has served on the Solid Waste & Recycling Advisory Committee for 20 years and has been the chair for the last 10. He thinks they’re missing an important function of their lives.

With curbside pickup, a lot of what is currently being recycled will end up in solid waste, a change Heller said will be more environmentally problematic and more costly. Although a lot of people still refer to the RTS as the “dump,” that no longer describes what happens there.

“The area that was a dump is now covered with a rubber membrane,” said Heller. “Under that are 18 inches of sludge that came from the Big Dig.”

On top of the rubber membrane, a large array of solar panels sends power into the electric grid.

Hal Cohen, a retired bank manager who has lived in Needham since 1964, recalled a time when there was no recycling. “You drove up to a pit and threw everything over the top,” he said. The RTS was a place to catch up with neighbors and acquaintances, Cohen added. “You could find 25% of the male population of Needham there on any Saturday.”  

Lois Sockol, a mostly retired educator who moved to Needham in 1967, agreed. “There is a very social aspect to the dump,” she said. “You go there and feel community.”

“I love it when I see people chatting on the walkways,” said DeMarrais.

Many towns west and northwest of Needham have retained a bring-it-yourself operation. Concord opts for a hybrid system where residents can pay the town for pickup. The cost: $177.50 for six months plus $1.80 per barrel.

Over time in Needham, changes such as  charging a fee per bag and eliminating the fee for RTS stickers were made — and more change is coming.  

Lustig said since eliminating the sticker fee, it has been very hard to estimate what percentage of Needham households use the RTS for their primary waste disposal. “Our tonnages for processing materials there have stayed level or increased since getting rid of the sticker fee,” she said.

Heller said he anticipates a huge battle between the self-haulers and the large portion of residents who already pay for trash removal. “A minority are committed to recycling and conservation.” 

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