In a sign of just how bad inflation has gotten in recent years, town leaders in three Middlesex East area communities say even the costs associated with throwing out trash are beginning to spiral out of control.
In early February, municipal officials in Burlington, Reading, and Winchester all noted that local garbage disposal costs have risen dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when waste management contractors began warning of manpower shortages and equipment and supply-chain issues.
Each community has since plugged a different solution to address the situation. In Winchester, where residents cart their own garbage to a town transfer station, the Select Board has suggested the implementation of a new pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) system where citizens will pay for each bag of trash being thrown away.
Similarly looking to reduce the total amount of refuse being dumped across town, Reading, which like most area communities relies upon a third-party contractor to pickup resident’s garbage, is exploring a switch to standardized trash and recycling containers. Per an initial proposal floated by Reading Town Manager Fidel Maltez, every household in town would be able to toss out 64-gallons of garbage each week under the change. Households that generate more refuse would be able to procure a second 64-gallon trash barrel for an extra fee or purchase special town-
issued trash bags at local stores.
“By issuing these carts, it will change behavior and encourage more recycling…Our current contract with [our waste management hauler] says they can pickup 120 gallons of trash per home, but that’s not a sustainable practice,” Maltez explained in a phone interview early last month.
Meanwhile, in Burlington, which like Reading employs the services of trash hauler Republic Services, the town is looking to buddy-up with neighboring Tewksbury and Tyngsborough to sign a five-year contract extension.
With Burlington’s existing services contract set to expire on June 30, town officials like DPW Business Manager Rachel Leonardo have warned that supply-chain problems, soaring fuel prices, landfill closures, and manpower shortages are all pressuring hauling and disposal costs. In fact, the pressures on the industry are so severe that Republic Services officials have reportedly suggested the may not be able to renew the contract until 2024.
“The market conditions and staffing issues have us thinking of the future and how we can save on costs for Burlington while giving residents the best service possible,” Leonardo told the town’s Select Board during a Town Hall meeting earlier this winter.
“Come budget time, we will find a way to make it work,” Burlington Select Board member Michael Espejo also said of the contract talks. “I want to keep the current services and not charge any more fees to residents, who are already paying enough in taxes. Lets keep it as is and maintain
services for residents.”
First signs of trouble
Back at the start of 2022, municipal officials in Reading, Wakefield, Peabody, and Salem caught their first hint that the waste hauling industry was facing extraordinary
pandemic-related pressures after garbage contractor JRM acknowledged it didn’t have enough workers to staff garbage trucks.
The staffing shortages, though exacerbated by a winter surge in COVID-19 infections, reportedly also related to disruptions at outside dumping sites, including scheduling problem’s at Covanta’s Haverhill incinerator site where Reading’s waste is carted.
With those disruptions lasting for a few weeks, problems again arose for many area communities again in the following fall, shortly after Republic Services, which purchased JRM Hauling, officially assumed responsibility for all of the shuttered Peabody company’s municipal refuse contracts.
Beginning in October, hundreds of town residents began lodging complaints in Reading Town Hall about missed household trash and recycling pickups.
With authorities in Lawrence and Plaistow, N.H. calling out the vendor for nearly identical problems, Maltez seized control of the situation by mobilizing Reading’s DPW to assume the contractor’s responsibilities.
When the crisis extended into its third week, an incensed Maltez - who before coming to Reading served as Chelsea’s DPW commissioner - threatened to cancel the Republic Services’ contract for non-performance.
Ultimately, the Arizona-based corporation, which reported $11 billion in revenue in 2021, got the manpower and equipment needed to resolve the crisis by the start of November.
However, as revealed by town manger in the months ahead, the crisis ended up exposing the breadth of the challenges facing the industry as a whole.
Trash costs expected to soar
As Maltez explained to the Select Board during a series of Town Hall discussions in December and early January, while trying to secure the services of another third-party hauler to take over the town’s $1.25 million a year contract last fall, he and DPW officials were absolutely floored by the bids being submitted by competitors.
Suggesting annual refuse disposal expenses could climb by more than $1 million a year unless the town dramatically changes its approach to the service, Maltez last month introduced his plan to curb expenses by procuring some 14,718 standardized trash and recycling containers.
“The costs are increasing. Luckily, Reading is locked into a contract until 2026, but what we’re hearing from competitors is they want Reading to go to an automated pickup. It’s a truck with a robotic arm that picks up [these standardized containers], and it’s a major savings for the hauler,” the town manager explained in an interview last month.
“We have to plan for the future because the train is coming,” Reading’s Assistant DPW Director Chris Cole later warned the Select Board at a meeting in early February.
Reading Town Meeting members are being asked later this spring to appropriate roughly $900,000 to cover the bill associated with purchasing the new barrels, which will be issued to every household in the community.
Residents whose families generate a considerable amount of trash each week can also opt to lease a second garbage barrel for a still-to-be-determined charge that is expected to range between $150 and $200. For those doing a fall or spring cleanup or throwing a party where extra trash is generated, the town will also reportedly sell 30-gallon overflow bags in local grocery and convenience stores for between $2 to $3.
During a meeting last week in Town Hall, Maltez informed the Select Board he is also considering the possibility of purchasing smaller trash containers after receiving feedback from senior citizens and others who believe they won’t come close to generating 64-gallons of garbage each week.
According to the town officials, besides negotiating a new trash hauling contract in 2026, Reading will also need to secure a new “tipping” agreement with trash incinerator company Covanta in 2025. Currently, Reading is paying around $63 a ton to drop off trash at the Haverhill incinerator plant, but that base rate is also expected to climb dramatically.
The switch to the new barrels will ensure Reading is doing all it can to reduce that total tonnage, as the new containers are about half the size of the approximate 120-gallons of refuse each household presently carts to the curb each week.
This year, the town appropriated $635,000 to cover tipping fees.
Winchester officials are also exploring a switch to a PAYT system, in which residents will pay for a transfer station sticker and $1 to $2 for each 33-gallons of refuse disposed of there, in order to reduce costs.
The proposal was brought before Winchester’s Select Board last month after the town experimented with the new model through a Mass. Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) pilot program.
“The pay for what they use, just like electricity and gas. It’s the most effective tool to reduce waste,” MassDEP
representative Julia Greene told Winchester’s Select Board during a meeting last month.
Though the Select Board has not yet officially decided to make the change, it did authorize Winchester Town Manager Beth Rudolph and Transfer Station Manager Nick Parlee to apply for a state grant to explore the concept further. The application is due to the state back by early June.
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