Pilot program seeks to move town to zero waste


The Berkshire Eagle

Estimates have found up to one-half of municipal solid waste to be compostable, and a composting pilot program for Williamstown seeks to divert waste from landfills and incinerators. EAGLE FILE PHOTO

WILLIAMSTOWN — With Massachusetts’ landfills filling up, the question of what to do about waste has generated greater urgency.

Landfills have closed across Massachusetts in recent years, and trash from some towns now travels as far as Virginia and Ohio. Most of Williamstown’s waste is collected by Casella Waste Systems, a Rutland, Vt.-based hauler, and taken to landfills or incinerators in upstate New York.

If waste continues to take longer journeys, some have expressed concern over rising hauling costs and increasing emissions from trucks and landfills.

A composting pilot program developed by two Williams College students, in conversation with local partners, seeks to respond to those pressures. If all goes to plan, the program would save up to half of waste in participating households and businesses from a trip to the landfill.

“No one wants to have a new incinerator or a new landfill, and that’s for a good reason,” said Niku Darafshi, a Williams College senior who grew up in Williamstown. “But, I think that if people don’t want that, they also need to compost and reduce their food waste.”

While details have yet to be finalized, the project would allow residents and businesses in some parts of the town to sign up, with participation subsidized by grant money. Educational materials also could help residents start composting at home.

Based on the results — the pilot is scheduled to run for about six months — project leaders would determine how to improve the process and make it more appealing for people to join.

Darafshi and Kelly Martin, a Williams junior, developed the project last fall for a capstone environmental studies course. That course, taught by Sarah Gardner, a lecturer and associate director of the college’s Center for Environmental Studies, is designed for students to apply their skills and knowledge to projects with local impacts.

The two have continued to work to implement the project alongside a team that includes Linda Cernik, program coordinator for the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste Management District; Nancy Nylen, a founder and member of the Williamstown CO2 Lowering (COOL) Committee; and Ann McCallum, a local architect.

The group, aiming to start the pilot in August, hopes to sign up residents and businesses over the summer.

In the pilot program, Casella would take compostable materials, including food scraps and wood-based matter, to its composting facility in Bennington, Vt., where it would convert organic matter into fertile soil that the town could buy back. Residents either would drop off materials at the transfer station or have materials picked up by Casella, although the latter option would cost more.

Trevor Mance, a project manager for food waste at Casella, said the company has had success composting with other Massachusetts towns, including Hamilton, which, in February, began requiring residents to compost food waste and paper, rather than putting those items in the trash.

Across the company, Casella has seen about a 15 percent increase in residential waste since the start of the corona-virus pandemic, Mance said. Businesses’ numbers, though, have varied, depending on the sector.

Massachusetts requires composting for businesses and institutions that produce a ton or more of compostable waste per week, but that applies only to places such as Williams College and larger grocery stores.

While the 13 members of the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste Management District have improved their recycling numbers, Cernik said, Williamstown’s composting pilot could pave a path for other towns to follow to further reduce waste. The district already offers compost bins at a discount for home composting.

“We’re starting off small but, hopefully, the pilot project will be the model for all of the municipalities to start,” Cernik said. “When we really roll out food-waste reduction, it could reduce how much we throw out by a good bit.”