Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Where is the Plan?

Lynne Pledger and Brent Baeslack

Though our small, densely populated state generates enough waste yearly to fill 74 Fenway Parks, Massachusetts residents may not think much about the trash and recycling they set out at the curb, as long as it gets hauled “away.” They know that someone somewhere is in charge of the safe and appropriate disposition of the Commonwealth’s discards. And surely this considerable responsibility is guided by a set of policies and plans for the long term – a master plan for waste management.

Well, yes and no. 

Yes, state and Federal laws do require the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop a statewide master plan that examines options for waste reduction and disposal, and sets priorities and schedules. The mountain of waste we generate each and every year represents (1) significant costs to the environment and the economy, (2) threats to public health, (3) waste of energy and material resources, and (4) lost opportunities to generate new businesses and jobs in reuse, repair, recycling, and composting. Thus, an urgent need to monitor, evaluate, protect – and plan.

And yes, DEP did generate a draft Solid Waste Master Plan for the decade 2010-20, titled Pathway to Zero Waste, which retained the moratorium on new incinerators and set a waste reduction target for Massachusetts.  And yes, after the public comment period on the draft ended in October 2010, DEP finalized the plan and sent it “up the line” for approval.

But no, the final plan has never been approved or released.

Someone somewhere is holding back our blueprint for solid waste management. But who and why? We have queried officials to no avail. Like the trash collected at curbside, the Solid Waste Master Plan has been whisked “away.” The final decisions on solid waste policy for 2010-20 are still unknown, two years into the decade.

DEP staff began developing the draft plan with laudable transparency and commitment to gathering input from the waste industry, businesses, the environmental community, public health professionals, public interest groups, and just folks. In 2008-09, DEP held six meetings throughout the state, as well as work-group sessions in Boston on a range of topics including banning certain products from the trash, producer responsibility for less wasteful products and packaging, finding markets for our recyclable materials, and more.  Adding to these yeasty deliberations, DEP commissioned a report from the Tellus Institute that provided hard data in support of reusing, recycling, and composting the Commonwealth’s discarded resources instead of burning and burying them.

On December 2009 the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs announced, “The Patrick-Murray Administration maintains Incinerator Moratorium, Expands Recycling Efforts,” and continued, “While the Master Plan will be drafted this winter, the statement released Friday commits the Patrick-Murray Administration to ‘an aggressive agenda’ that gives cities and towns assistance to expand and improve their waste reduction efforts….” This announcement positioned Massachusetts as a green leader in the region and the nation.

We waited until summer for the draft, and ever since we’ve been waiting to see which all-important details made the final. DEP priorities come with funding and other types of assistance. Municipalities plan accordingly. Likewise, businesses in reuse, recycling, remanufacture, and composting or anaerobic digestion may decide to move into the state based on these priorities. Climate action plans reference state goals. New policies also imply new regulations; residents must know what kinds of technologies the regulatory agency will welcome, and with what safeguards.

Now, more than two years after that announcement from the Administration, DEP staff says they are proceeding to implement programs “as though” the final plan had been approved. But many groups and individuals with differing opinions submitted testimony on the draft; which of these opinions were incorporated in the final version and which were rejected?

As the draft plan says on page 10, “Solid waste is everybody’s business.” Leave it for lawyers to determine, but we say that the Administration cannot fulfill the requirement for a solid waste master plan with a phantom document seen only by officialdom. 

Lynne Pledger works for Clean Water Action, Brent Baeslack is a volunteer with the Haverhill Environmental League - Both represent their respective organizations on the statewide alliance, Don’t Waste Massachusetts.

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