Zero Waste Initiatives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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In recent years, several towns around the country and the state of California have started using their political power to make a massively impactful change. The city of Cambridge, MA (home to Harvard University) collectively agreed to reach 80% less waste by 2050. Two initiatives have been implemented in the past two years. In March of 2016, Cambridge’s Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance took effect, which bans the distribution of plastic bags in stores and requires a minimum $0.10 charge on any reusable, paper, or compost bags provided by a place of business. In April 2018, Cambridge started offering curbside compost pickup for all buildings with 1-12 units.

Ambassador Riley Smith reached out to Quinton Zondervan, a representative of the Cambridge City Council, to ask about the process of setting these initiatives in motion and their effects thus far.


Riley: Who initially proposed the Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance?

Quinton: [There is a] complex and long history involving (then councilors) Decker and vanBeuzekom. Councillor Carlone proposed the final version with active help from (his then aide) Mike Connelly. Then councilor Chung also played an active role in proposing a fee be collected for the bags which I advocated for strongly as a community member.


R: What has the feedback been like in the council and in the community?

Q: It was an 8-year process to ban the bags with various cycles of feedback and input. Mostly the feedback has been positive since the law was passed.


R: What was the motivation to propose a Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance?

Q: Mostly to eliminate the thin grocery bags which are a major environmental hazard when they escape the waste stream (blowing around getting caught in trees ending up in the ocean where animals die from eating them). If they stay in the waste stream they end up in landfills or incinerated, in both cases again causing pollution. The best thing to do is eliminate them completely from our lives.


R: How is the Cambridge Curbside Compost funded?

Q: [Funding comes] from the city’s regular operating budget. The city does save some money as well from avoiding landfill costs so the net cost is lower than the cost of the program itself.


R: This curbside compost effort is an expanded version of some compost collection that was already in effect. What was required by the city to expand the number of households eligible?

Q: We needed a place to put the food waste! The solution was to process it with our sewage, which is not ideal but still better than landfill. Ideally, we would turn it into food-grade compost at nearby farms, but the total volume is greater than we can handle. Hopefully next year we will start piloting including larger households.


R: Do you believe these initiatives are producing the environmental protection results you had hoped for?

Q: Yes, but we’re not close to done; our goal is zero waste. So these are important interim steps in the right direction but not the final solution.


R: Are there other initiatives, proposals, etc. in place to help Cambridge realize its waste reduction goals?

Q: Yes; for example, mattress recycling is coming, small business recycling pickup by the city is being piloted this fall. Beyond that, we need to do far more and I intend to introduce further legislation in the not too distant future.


R: How can other cities/towns implement these changes?

Q: Banning plastic bags is relatively straightforward and ultimately we should ban them as a state like California did. It just requires a community conversation to make sure people understand what’s coming. Brookline [MA] did it before Cambridge, other communities are following suit. Same with composting; it starts with the community committing to doing it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.