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.

A Matter of Taste

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

The author's first attempt at cooking a fish whole. Buying fish whole is one way consumers can ensure they get what they pay for. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.
The author’s first attempt at cooking a fish whole. Buying fish whole is one way consumers can ensure they get what they pay for. Photo courtesy of Cassie Martin.

In the back of Super 88, the Asian market near my apartment, lay rows of wide-eyed fish packed in ice. I pass up the colossal catfish and choose the small, unassuming, and shiny silver pomfret for my first experience eating a fish whole. A friend and I stuff it with fresh ginger and shitake mushrooms then steam it on the stove top. It takes less than 10 minutes to cook and is more flavorful than any fish fillet I ever eaten.

I grew up cooking and eating typical Midwestern seafood—pre-packaged blocks of frozen flesh. If it weren’t for the label I’d call it mystery meat, but labels aren’t always trustworthy.

Consumers are deceived on a regular basis, according to a study released in February by the ocean conservation group Oceana. Oceana tested the DNA of an unprecedented 1,215 seafood samples taken from grocery stores and restaurants in 21 states between 2010 and 2012. The researchers found that one in three were mislabeled. The fish species most commonly misrepresented were tuna, salmon, red snapper, cod, and halibut.

Many people were outraged by the findings, and rightfully so. Consumers are paying for top- shelf fish and getting a bottom-shelf fraud instead. Escolar, an oily fish native to tropical and temperate waters, is a common tuna impostor banned in Japan but not in the U.S., according to the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health. Cheaper and more abundant, the species contains toxic oil that causes gastrointestinal illness when just a few ounces of oil are ingested—which is easy to do during one meal. Other fish high in mercury often masquerade as snapper and halibut. In high enough doses, mercury can cause problems with fertility, blood pressure regulation, memory, vision, and sensation in the extremities among other things.

Diversifying America’s seafood diet is one way to avoid health hazards and combat fraud. With 1,700 species to choose from, knowingly choosing smaller sustainable species like clams, anchovies, and sardines over trendy over-fished species can help maintain biodiversity of the world’s most popular food source. Smaller species are cheaper, more abundant, reproduce faster, and accumulate fewer toxins than their larger counterparts. And since they aren’t as high-profile as other species, the chances of buying a fake are slim.

Another way to avoid eating imposter fish is to buy it whole instead of opting for packaged fillets—at least you get what you see. But convenience, cooking skills, and a fear of the unfamiliar often dictate consumer choices.

In 2011, Americans consumed a whopping 4.7 billion pounds of seafood—most of it processed and representative of only a handful of species—making us second only to China. Some mislabeling is unintentional, but it is often a deliberate attempt to avoid tariffs and pad the bottom line. Illegal and unregulated fishing costs the industry $23 billion annually in lost revenue.  Unfortunately, the complexity of the current system makes it almost impossible to pinpoint where fraud occurs.

“The first thing we hear is ‘well, if FedEx can track a package why can’t we?’” said Steve Wilson, chief quality officer of NOAA’s UCSD Seafood Inspection Program. “The packages FedEx deliver start out as a whole package and end as a whole package, but with fish it’s more complicated. A pallet of fish will get cut up into 800 pieces and sent to at least 100 different locations.” Tracing each piece as it’s transferred from the fishermen to the numerous middlemen during processing and finally to the consumer is prohibitively expensive.

In March, U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass) re-introduced legislation that would require a fish to be traced from boat to plate and impose hefty fines on violators. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported from countries such as China, Thailand, and Ecuador among other places; most U.S. inspection programs are voluntary. Only two percent of imports are inspected, and only .001 percent is inspected for fraud. And while tracking may help combat fraud in the future, it will only be effective with international cooperation.

Ultimately, combating fish fraud is in the hands of the consumer. Since labels are unreliable, making informed, sustainable choices by purchasing less-popular, whole fish protects both wallets and health. If the average American can overcome his or her distaste for scales, bones, and staring eyes—which shouldn’t be difficult since lobsters are so popular—they’ll also discover fish on the bone tastes better than a processed fillet.