Jim Kenyon: Enfield Goes Zero-Sort

No matter where you live in the Upper Valley or how much money you make, there’s no getting around it. Sooner or later, it has to be disposed of.

I’m talking trash.

How do you get rid of half-eaten jelly doughnuts, chicken bones, empty toothpaste tubes and other household solid waste that everyday life generates?

In just about every Upper Valley community, homeowners are on their own. Residents are responsible for packing their household’s output of solid waste into plastic bags and schlepping them to the nearest landfill or town-operated transfer station. Non-do-it-yourself types can pay a private trash hauler to do the job for them. But is there another option?

A few communities in the Upper Valley still believe there is, Plainfield and Enfield being among them.

For years, residents of the two towns have known that if they get their household trash to the curb on the appointed day, their local government will take care of the rest.

“You can’t beat the convenience,” said Plainfield Town Administrator Steve Halleran. “Get it to the end of the driveway and be done with it.”

While not all taxpayers have children in school, use the town library or (thank goodness) require the services of the fire department, they arguably get their money’s worth when it comes to trash pickup. “It’s one of the really tangible things that people get for their property taxes,” said Halleran.

By no means is the service free. This year, Plainfield is spending $142,000 in taxpayer money for Casella, the waste disposal giant, to pick up trash at 1,200 households.

Which brings me to Enfield’s recent dilemma.

The town pays $160,000 for Casella to collect trash at more than 2,000 households. Although the Selectboard wanted to continue curbside service, it didn’t particularly relish asking taxpayers to foot removal costs that “kept creeping upward,” said board Chairman John Kluge. Between collecting and disposing, Enfield spends nearly $500,000 a year on trash, which amounts to 10 percent of the town budget.

Not surprisingly, the Selectboard concluded the simplest way to keep costs in check was to reduce the level of service. Instead of collecting weekly, Enfield last month went to every other week.

Problem solved? Not quite. In some months, Enfield was sending 170 tons or so of trash via Casella’s garbage trucks to the landfill in Lebanon. Clearly, Enfield had work to do on the recycling end. “Every pound we put into recycling is one less pound we have to pay to dispose of,” said Town Manager Steve Schneider.

“It’s also the right thing to do these days,” added Kluge.

But telling people that they should recycle more because it’s good for the planet goes only so far. Recycling must be made easy, which wasn’t the case in Enfield. Residents had to do their own sorting and then truck their recyclable items to the town’s transfer station. (Along with curbside service, Enfield also provides residents with a place to leave trash, if they prefer to do it themselves.)

Other towns, including Hanover and Hartford, have gone to zero-sort systems, which allow plastic bottles, metal cans, newspapers and other recyclables to be tossed in one container. In Hanover, residents are responsible for disposing of their own solid waste, but the town pays $130,000 a year to Casella to provide curbside pickup of zero-sort recycling.

Now Enfield has joined the curbside zero-sort recycling movement. Essentially, the town traded less service (from 52 to 26 pickups a year) for a much more efficient recycling system.

The early returns are encouraging. Last month, the town sent about 60 fewer tons of trash to the Lebanon Solid Waste Facility than it did in August 2012. If the trend continues, Schneider expects the town can save at least $50,000 next year on solid waste disposal fees.

Now some bad news.

With trash being picked up only once every two weeks, some people are worried — for good reason— that the smell of ripe garbage, particularly in “hot and sticky weather” could become problematic, said Schneider. So if residents have a lobster bake in the middle of the summer, they’ll probably have to make a special trip to the transfer station.

If trash cans runneth over, the idea of paying $3 to the town for an extra bag is not being widely cheered, either. Under its five-year agreement with the town, Casella is not obligated to pick up any extra trash that’s not in town bags, which I imagine will annoy a few folks.

The first month of the new curbside pickup schedule has seen a few “hiccups,” acknowledged Casella’s general manager, Jim Toher. Each Enfield household was supposed to receive two new containers — one for trash, the other for zero-sort recyclables — by early August. But judging from the small mountain of plastic trash bags piled outside two apartment buildings on Main Street last Wednesday, not everyone had received their allotment.

Casella “ran short” of containers, but was making arrangements to bring in more, said Toher.

On a drive through town on Friday, I was glad to see the trash bags on Main Street had been picked up.

Half-eaten jelly doughnuts quickly lose their appeal.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at
Jim.Kenyon@valley.net