Trek to the Transfer Station

August 16, 2023

Five families braved the rain to attend Acton’s Transfer Station Field Trip on Monday, August 7, organized by the Acton Memorial Library (AML), Department of Public Works (DPW), and the Sustainability Office. Robert Carter, AML Children’s Librarian, and Sustainability Office Fellows Lauren West and Hannah Arledge joined DPW staff for the program.

Corey York, DPW Director, welcomed the small crowd of about 16, noting that they were standing on the site of Acton’s former landfill located on Route 2. York pointed to the tree line around the perimeter of the Transfer Station as the boundary of the landfill that was capped in the mid 1980s. He also noted that the solar array installed on top of a portion of the capped landfill, combined with the panels on the roof of the Public Works Facility on Forest Road, produces close to all the energy required for every municipal building in town, exclusive of the school buildings. Annual groundwater monitoring for pollutants is done by a consultant, and results are shared with the MA Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP) as required for all capped landfills in the Commonwealth. Methane gas monitoring also takes place.

DPW staff Joe Borey and Kevin Beaudoin explained, along with York, the operations of the recycling and trash services. The facility’s main aim is to operate as sustainably as possible. The costs of recycling, and the items accepted, vary a great deal over time. Recycling is very much a market-driven endeavor. York explained that, “Years ago, we made money on cardboard.” The fact that the cost of shipping has gone up three to four times post-Covid, and shipping duration has also increased, further complicates the process.

Working with Green Acton, a non-profit environmental advocacy organization, the Town implemented the PAYT (Pay As You Throw ) program in 2015, and since then has seen the volume of trash cut in half as users are incentivized to recycle or compost more of their household waste. The main containers at the Recycling Center are for co-mingled recyclables: glass jars and bottles, aluminum cans and plastic bottles together, and paper and cardboard together. With the initial separation done by residents, the product is more valuable, allowing the facility to accept more recyclables. Residents can find detailed information on what to recycle and how to prepare the materials, on the Transfer Station website and on large signs located around the site.

There are several other drop-off areas for other recyclable materials. Staff have found a vendor who will repurpose rigid plastic such as storage bins and large toys. There is a lightbulb collection area, and the cost of bulb recycling is covered by the revenue generated. Mattresses (residents pay a small additional fee) are picked up and delivered to a warehouse in Lawrence, although the company is based in Lowell. The mattresses are stripped down to the raw materials by young adults, who benefit from this work by learning a trade. Appliances such as refrigerators and air-conditioners, also dropped off for a small fee, are repurposed following the removal of the freon in the units. On the day of the field trip, a truck on-site was engaged in that task. Electronics are also accepted – TVs, computer monitors, mice, keyboards, scanners/printers, phones, cordless phones, tablets, VCRs, and more. A fully verified recycling company based in New Hampshire picks up the items in an eighteen-wheeler truck. The electronics are stripped down to the components, including metal and wires, for resale. The Cell Phones for Soldiers program, carried out by Acton’s Veteran Services Office, is a way to recycle cell phones that are reprogrammed for military personnel use.

Through most of the year, the DPW hosts a monthly event for styrofoam collection. Although it is difficult to find an end product for styrofoam, the hard packing styrofoam that “snaps” is able to be repurposed. Staff estimate that at these events, a forty cubic yard container is filled in 3 hours. The next scheduled event is this Saturday, August 19; a Transfer Station sticker is required for participation. According to staff, the most valuable commodity is metal scrap, previously sold at a high point of $240/ ton, then the price plummeted to $40/ton, but the metal is now fetching $180/ton.

Other large areas of the facility are set aside for yard waste (leaves and grass) and brush. These organic materials are turned into compost at the stockyard near NARA park, a three-year process. When the composting process is complete, this nutrient-rich soil conditioner is available for residents (with a sticker) to haul away in bins, buckets and barrels.

A highlight of the Transfer Station is the Swap Shop, open seasonally and staffed by volunteers. Residents can leave and take clean and usable household items such as dishes, lamps, picture frames, holiday decor, small working appliances, toys, games, lawn chairs, office supplies, infant equipment, sports equipment, and luggage.

Typically, food waste is the heaviest component of household trash. Keeping it out of the trash is the best way to keep the Town’s costs for waste disposal down. Black Earth Compost company uses a high-temperature, commercial process. They pick up residents’ food waste from large barrels lined up in front of the trash bay windows. The company also provides private pick up for those who use curbside haulers. The Transfer Station is generating enough revenue from its recycling program to offset the cost of the food waste program. York noted that “MA DEP is pushing for food waste elimination,” so it is possible that including food waste in residential or commercial trash will be prohibited in the future.

What cannot be composted or recycled, including styrofoam used in food packaging, and alkaline batteries, is trucked to a facility in North Andover to be incinerated, where the resulting ash is put in a landfill there. Like the Acton landfill of old, the North Andover site is running out of space for the ash. Rechargeable and lithium batteries are collected in a bucket by the office near the entrance, bagged, and shipped out for recycling.

Following the informational program, DPW staff led the small crowd down the hill where a container transport and dump truck were parked. Children and adults alike were delighted to have a chance to climb up into the cabs of these giant vehicles.

The DPW is currently working with the Sustainability Office to explore the feasibility of curbside hauling. Until then, the Transfer Station, with its low price-point PAYT program for trash, and a myriad of recycling options, is the best price in town. One of the most beneficial things residents can do to ensure the trip to the Transfer Station goes smoothly for themselves, other users, and staff, is to organize and separate their household waste ahead of time, and pay close attention to the posted signs with instructions for what goes where.

Families enjoy an Acton Transfer Station Field Trip with DPW, Sustainability, and Library staff.


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