Brookline Solid Waste Advisory Committee Discusses Sustainability Progress

By Maysie Childs
BU News Service

Increasing sustainability is a goal in many towns and communities, but in Brookline it is a reality. According to a Brookline Solid Waste Advisory Committee meeting on Feb.11 at the Health And Human Services Department, more and more of Brookline’s “stuff” is recycled each year.

According to reports from the town Department of Public Works, the SWAC’s efforts to cut costs of waste removal, which are calculated per pound, are working. There is a slight and steady decrease in solid waste of about seven tons per year, board members said, and the recycling weight is up about 14 tons this year.

“We’re talking trash here,” Ed Gilbert, a representative from the Brookline DPW, said. In the 10 years Gilbert has been in Brookline, he has seen a yearly decrease in trash weight.

“There is a point to which you can get people to recycle,” Gilbert said, “And we have gotten to this point, you can’t get much lower.”

SWAC members promote recycling through community participation and encouragement.

Meeting chairman John Dempsey said the members helped to get single-stream recycling implemented with 65-gallon blue carts and automatic collection.

But SWAC members want to get the total weight of solid waste and the costs of trash pick-up even lower. Starting this May, Brookline officials plan to implement a program in which residents will drop off kitchen waste at a transfer station to cut trash pick-up costs.

A potential problem for residents is that the transfer station is accessible only by car.

“We’d do much better if we had drop-off sites in the denser neighborhoods of North Brookline,” Dempsey said.

Local drop-offs are more costly though, and would mean residents near the site have to worry about pests, rodents and odors that accompany heaps of kitchen waste.

Cambridge has implemented a program for curbside collection of kitchen waste.

“We are letting Cambridge be the guinea pigs on curbside collection,” Dempsey said. “We’ll see how their program goes before trying to institute a similar program in Brookline.”

Cambridge has a bigger budget for waste removal than Brookline.

SWAC members said they are cautious about taking the same leap because the program will increase labor costs.

“They [Cambridge] still have two guys on the back of a truck,” Gilbert said. “Their labor costs are through the roof.”

Another area of focus and measureable success for SWAC members are the organized Styrofoam drop-offs. SWAC members say they realize the drop-offs locations are costly, at $250 per drop-off, and time-consuming.

However, according to Susan Rittling, a SWAC member, what started as a “publicity gimmick” is keeping Styrofoam out of residents’ blue carts or recycling bins.

At the last meeting in late January, Rittling and Cynthia Snow, another committee member, were among the volunteers who gave their weekend to host the event. They recall hours of standing in the cold stripping pieces of tape off Styrofoam materials so over 400 pounds of it could be disposed of properly.

“By making a big deal about the drop-off, we were trying to emphasize the message, ‘Don’t put it in your cart,’” Dempsey said. “People got so jazzed by the idea of us properly recycling expanded polystyrene [Styrofoam] they started to expect drop-offs every few months, or at least once a year.”

Dempsey said they have helped create a culture of recycling in town.

Brookline residents recently got all local businesses to switch from plastic to paper bags, and paper cups have replaced Styrofoam.

“As far as I can see, people have adapted pretty well,” Dempsey said.

While waiting to see how the curbside collection goes in Cambridge, the SWAC will also continue efforts to start a program for swap shops to get reusable clothes and furniture out of the waste stream and into the hands of those in need.

Dust to Dust: Considering Natural Burial

Your view
Your view
Photo courtesy of Flickr user knfk

By: Sara Knight
BU News Service

As far as we know, everyone dies. After you die your loved ones will most likely hand you off to a very professional-looking, somber stranger. This stranger will deal with your corporal remains either by the pickle-and-primp method or by crisping you in an oven that reaches up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Should the former method be chosen, your orifices will be padded with balls of cotton and sewn shut. While the blood drains from your body, the gloved and masked stranger will systematically pump you full of noxious preservatives. After your corpse is plumped full of these carcinogenic chemicals, you will be washed with poisonous fungicides and insecticides, dabbed with rouge, and stuffed into an outfit of your loved ones’ choosing.

Your body will be put into a polished metal and wood coffin and lowered deep underground into a secure, cement vault. The grounds around your vault will be regularly clipped, watered, and sprayed with pesticides. Or, if your loved ones went the “cleansing fire” route and chose cremation they will receive an urn full of what will be called your “ashes;” in actuality it is the pulverized gravel left over from your charred bones.

Embalming, the pickling method described above, coupled with the dressing, storage, funerary services, and burial can easily cost from $10,000 to $12,000, cremation $1,500 to $4,000. Both are not only costly, but ecologically harmful. Both are also entirely unnecessary.

Traditional burial and embalming require huge amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels and manufacture of toxic chemicals, an absurd testament to inefficiency. Embalming, though not legally required, often serves a purpose as a preservative to give far-flung family members time to travel to bid the body of their loved one farewell. However, embalming does not accomplish anything a good rest in a refrigerator could not.

Mark Harris, an environmental author and proponent of alternative burials, said that 75 percent of all caskets are made with metal. We put this highly durable box into a deep pit that is lined with concrete – a “vault.” Vaults were created to prevent cave-ins should the coffin begin to degrade. They also protected a loved one’s remains from skullduggery.

Harris puts the waste into perspective in his book Grave Matters: “A typical 10-acre swatch…contains enough coffin wood to construct 40 houses; nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel; 20,000 tons of vault concrete; and enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool.”

"Arlington Tree" courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer
“Arlington Tree” courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer

We are taking huge swathes of land and making them useless for all but social visits to carved hunks of stone. This manicured, pesticide-treated collection of somber rocks could be meadowland, forest, orchards, or even community parks; a place where mourners might go to be reminded of the cyclical nature of life.

Fortunately, those of us who are either ecologically conscious or simply wary of the grotesqueries and indignities our bodies are subject to at the hands of a funeral director can now opt for natural burial. In a natural burial, the untreated corpse is shrouded or encased in biodegradable materials (cardboard, linen, or sea grass) and shallowly buried in hopes of becoming mulch. This mulch will nourish the local flora, including any memorial seeds planted by the grieving family.

Would you rather visit your grandfather’s oak tree or a slab of stone with his name on it? And even if the figurative permanence of a gravestone appeals, natural burial does not preclude this option – you can stake your chosen memorial on the burial site. We have green alternatives to embalming, cremation, and traditional burial; it is now time to lay those old practices to rest.