Edgar B. Herwick III from WGBH's Curiosity Desk has reported on "subterranean receivers" in Massachusetts backyards, the containers where households used to throw their wet garbage. His story got started with a question from fellow WGBH reporter Craig LeMoult, who found a subterranean receiver in his own yard. LeMoult discussed their purpose and a new composting plan from the city of Boston with WGBH All Things Considered host Barbara Howard. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: It was your own receptacle hidden in the backyard, underground, that got this thing going.
Craig LeMoult: Yeah, I had no idea what this thing was. And actually I heard you have one of these in your backyard too.
Howard: I knew right away what it was, because we do have one of those strange containers. And in fact it's the same manufacturer, F. B. Jones, Somerville, Massachusetts, just like yours — a twin. And these are ubiquitous in New England, especially in the Boston area. I know other houses that have them as well.
LeMoult: I've actually been getting tweets from people saying, “Oh yeah, I got that thing and I didn't know what it was." Some people know exactly what it is, but it was a mystery to me, so it was fun to hear from Edgar what the whole story behind this thing was.
Howard: What did you think of the explanation Edgar gave?
LeMoult: I thought it was fascinating. I thought was really interesting to hear what happened to these things over time, and it's sort of too bad we don't use them anymore. But as Edgar found, they basically stopped using them after plastic garbage bags got introduced. And as he mentioned, one legacy of those bags is a lot of plastic pollution. But throwing out our food waste has also increased emissions of greenhouse gases that are changing the climate, and that happens in two ways. First, some of our trash is incinerated, and so all that organic matter is burned, and a lot of carbon in that is not captured — it’s just being released into the atmosphere. And a lot of those trash bags just wind up in landfills, and the rotting food inside creates methane, which is an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas. There are some systems for capturing some of that methane, but I talked to Kirstie Pecci, who's the head of the Zero Waste Program at the Conservation Law Foundation, and she said that's just not the answer.
“The best way to handle this is not to build landfill gas-to-energy systems or to capture the methane, because you're never going to capture all of it,” Pecci said. “The best way to handle this is to keep our food scraps, our yard waste, our textiles, our paper and cardboard out of the landfill entirely. And luckily, those are all things that are compostable and recyclable, so we shouldn't be putting them in our landfills anyway.”
Howard: Easier said than done. I understand a composting program is being introduced in Boston. How workable is that?
LeMoult: Right. In fact, the city released its plan today. It covers a wide range of ideas for meeting some pretty ambitious goals. It's sort of in coordination with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The city wants to achieve zero waste by that year, too. And they want to boost the city's recycling rate from 24 percent now to 80 percent in the next 15 years or so. Also, right now, more than 35 percent of what's thrown out could be composted, and that includes both food and yard waste. So the city's plan is to expand their existing yard waste composting program, and they're announcing that they're looking for contractors to start a pilot program to compost residential food waste. I talked with Amy Perlmutter — she was the lead consultant in developing the plan — about the future of this composting program.
“It could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it could reduce the trash going to disposal by a third, which is pretty exciting,” Perlmutter said. “And that could actually lead to getting some of the garbage trucks off the street.”
Of course there would also be some composting trucks on the street, but Perlmutter says it would still be a net benefit.
Howard: Well we heard Edgar mention in his story that Cambridge has already done such a thing. They have a composting program, right?
LeMoult: Sort of. They call it a composting program, but I reported a story about this last year, and the food waste in the Cambridge program is actually being mixed with sewage sludge and turned into a fertilizer. Perlmutter told me she's hoping that Boston doesn't wind up going down that road and dealing with its food waste that way, mixing it with sewage sludge. But now we have to see what kind of proposals the city gets.
The Boston plan released today actually includes 30 different ideas, including a proposal for a program to recycle textiles. And the city plans to do more to educate people about how to recycle correctly. You know, it can be really confusing to do it. Just this morning, I was trying to figure out what to do with a cardboard coffee container. I actually mentioned it to Perlmutter, and she told me that if you go on Mass.gov and search “recyclopedia,” it brings up this tool, and you can enter in whatever you're wondering about and it'll tell you whether or not that thing can be recycled.