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Boston is aiming to achieve “zero waste,” which some say can create more living-wage jobs. Is part of this lofty goal rooted in the region’s dirtiest hypocrisy?


As Mayor Marty Walsh and members of his administration have boasted on several fronts, the future of this city depends on sustainability. To that end, Boston has grand plans for a new “zero waste” economy, where everything that people throw away becomes a resource and recycling helps fuel regional industries.

It’s a lofty goal, but it may not include everyone.

For Boston’s vision appears to have left out recycling workers, who fair-wage advocates say have been shortchanged by the city and its neighboring municipalities for decades.

Though they work on municipal contracts, which are traditionally covered by a set of little-known “living wage” ordinances that should boost their pay by thousands of dollars per year, none of the workers at the Casella Waste Systems recycling facility in Charlestown are technically public employees. Even though Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville were at the forefront of the living-wage movement in the late 1990s, and despite their auras of progressive leadership, each has given Casella several living wage exemptions. While this was once seen as a controversy worthy of headlines and protests, the practice has gradually calcified into official policy.

The rationale for these exemptions—first supplied by Casella itself—is that said contracts were for the sale of goods, not services. Back when cities were making a lot of money on recyclables after they were sorted and sold, it was a lot harder to argue with that logic.

Now, global recycling markets are in turmoil due to Chinese trade policy, and the financial tables have turned. Last year, for example, Somerville wound up paying Casella more than $223,000, while Cambridge paid nearly $127,000. Boston still made money on its recycling contract in 2017, but it looks increasingly likely that will not happen again this year.

In some ways, the sliding market may help the case made by labor and environmental advocates who argue that these cities are manipulating a living-wage ordinance loophole. At the same time, it raises the question of whether they’ll suddenly pay higher wages as recycling contracts are expected to get much more expensive.

If Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge do find the will to make sure that recycling employees qualify for their living wages ($14.82, $12.80, and $15.64 respectively), they can look to examples in other states. Plus, they can leverage a potential boost from the state’s minimum wage climbing from $11 to $15 by 2023. Per the original spirit of the living-wage movement, cities should now be more compelled than ever before to evaluate how they can pay and maintain higher salaries for outside contracts. Furthermore, Boston’s current “zero waste” planning process has the potential to transform the entire region in multiple areas.

Still, considering the way that one publicly traded company has been able to successfully subvert landmark municipal policy for years, one has to wonder if new plans will become similarly superficial.

Whatever happens next, any honest discussion about a future recycling economy should address the complex history of activism, politics, and systematic obfuscation that the current one is built on.

 

Inaugural meeting of Boston’s Zero Waste Advisory Committee in City Hall’s Piedmont Room on Feb. 12, 2018.

 

LESS THAN ZERO

“We’ve got a huge opportunity.”

Boston Chief of Environment Austin Blackmon speaks to a large crowd at City Hall during the Hub’s inaugural Zero Waste Advisory Committee meeting in February.

“We’ve made great progress already. … But when we look at our peers across the country, like San Francisco where they’re diverting up to 80 percent of their waste from landfill, we’ve got a long way to go.”

The definition of “zero waste” can differ from city to city and region to region. Various presentations prepared for Boston by some of the country’s best-known recycling consultants have included nods to “equity” and making worker safety, health, and job quality priorities. Likewise, according to Boston’s 2014 Climate Action Plan, this sort of “waste recovery” is seen as a way to “create safe jobs with living wages.”

Whatever the meaning, Boston’s nowhere close to “zero waste” by any measure. The city’s residential recycling rate is currently around 25 percent, meaning the majority of everything people put out at their curbs is still going to various waste-to-energy incinerators throughout the state. Alternatively, they could reduce and reuse more material, pull out food waste for composting or anaerobic digestion, and maximize their participation in the current recycling program.

In other cities that are pursuing comparable goals, commonly cited results have included an influx of local investment and higher wage jobs. In one case, San Francisco has a recycling facility that is a union shop, run by worker-owned company Recology. Other major cities with “zero waste” goals—Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Austin—also work with recycling facilities that are either staffed by union labor or covered by wage ordinances.

“Part of that package of being an exemplary ‘zero waste’ city is prioritizing and valuing the recycling workers,” said Ahmina Maxey, a regional coordinator with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “‘Zero waste’ is not just about the trash, it’s not only about the recycling. It’s also about having a socially just circular system of handling waste.”

Everything is technically still on the table for Boston’s “zero waste” planning process, with final recommendations due by early fall (ahead of 2019 contract expirations). Certain components are already being pushed aside, though, since they’re seen as being outside the scope of what is achievable.

On a larger scale, any effort to influence Casella’s wages would have to be regionally coordinated. The facility works with an estimated 50 municipalities, plus commercial customers, with Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville combined comprising less than 25 percent of the material coming in every year. Nevertheless, advocates with the Zero Waste Boston coalition believe this is a convenient excuse to overlook the core issue; regardless of whether it is Casella or the cities paying higher rates, no one can dispute that sorters are among the lowest earners in the waste and recycling sector.

“It’s irresponsible to continue this way,” Alex Papali of Zero Waste Boston and Clean Water Action said. “The contractors who hold these city contracts have an obligation to provide wages that are going to allow people to stay living in our communities.”

If Boston does take truly transformative steps approaching “zero waste,” many of the future “green” jobs that yields will likely involve specialized recycling and the manufacturing of goods with recycled content. But there will still be a need for the far less lucrative work of sifting through junk mail, sticky beer bottles, and crusty peanut butter jars.

Based on their location and longstanding municipal relationships, Casella will continue to be in the mix as well. The company’s Charlestown facility is the only one of its kind for miles around. Through the years, this dynamic has made the regional recycling behemoth both a necessity for public works departments and a white whale for the labor community.

 

A FINE SORT

Curbside residential recycling has existed in its current form in Greater Boston since the early 1990s. As for the complex global operation that proceeds once items leave the curb in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, that process has almost always started at a large warehouse complex in Charlestown, next to a set of overgrown tennis courts on the edge of Bunker Hill Community College’s campus. Northbound traffic passes overhead on I-93. Orange Line trains run alongside.

Currently owned by Vermont-based Casella, which acquired the plant in 1999 with the purchase of KTI Recycling, this is one of the largest recycling facilities in the country. An estimated 230,000 tons of material from communities and businesses throughout the region pass through here every year.

About 5 percent of Casella’s company-wide workforce of 2,000 people is unionized, but none at this facility are members. National Labor Relations Board records show only one election that could have changed that; it was led unsuccessfully by UFCW Local 445 nearly 15 years ago.

The drivers who bring recycling in from Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville all make at least $27.75 per hour—plus benefits—either under Teamsters contracts or the state’s prevailing wage law. In the view of Casella and its municipal customers, any living-wage ordinance liability stops as soon as the material leaves the trucks. From there, a new set of workers is responsible for separating everything into marketable commodities.

As of April, Casella said the Charlestown operation was employing 95 people and utilizing an additional 60 temporary workers—with wages ranging from the state minimum of $11 up to $30.

“We deliberately promote many entry-level employees to openings in higher-skill, higher-wage positions regularly,” Casella Vice President Joe Fusco wrote in response to questions via email. “Our approach has been to offer a path to increasingly responsible job duties and growth in compensation.” Fusco added that sorting jobs are “a desirable opportunity for many to acquire or exceed the skills and experience typical of living wage careers and beyond.”

The higher end of that spectrum may include supervisors, mechanics, scale operators, equipment technicians, forklift drivers, and other specialized positions. But it’s the entry-level recycling sorters picking items off conveyor belts and cleaning machinery who make less and are at the heart of this debate. Statistically, they will be exposed to a variety of hazards caused by repetitive motion, airborne dust, dangerous items put in recycling carts, and other factors on a daily basis. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed the injury rate at private recycling facilities is nearly double the national average for all industries.

Because it’s common practice for recycling facilities to utilize temporary labor, which is categorized separately and thus harder to track, these numbers could actually be higher. Temporary workers are seen as a necessity by many recycling plants because volumes can vary day to day. Overtime, workers’ compensation, health care, and other benefits, if there are any, go through the employment agency, not Casella.

Some of the industry’s largest companies have recognized that temp work presents inherent safety challenges. Initial training often falls on outside agencies and may not always be as extensive as it is for full-time employees. All of which feeds into the portrayal by local labor groups that these employees are at risk, making low-end wages to spend at least part of their days on essential city work.

“If we’re really committed to lifting Boston families out of poverty we have a really relevant example here with the Casella workers,” Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) organizer Tolle Graham, who recently announced her retirement, said at a 2017 city meeting.

Fusco said that training at Casella is “extensive as well as frequent.” Reports, however, show that there have been some troubles at the Charlestown plant.

In 2005, the state attorney general’s office announced a settlement with Casella for nearly $80,000 in back pay owed to 30 employees, complete with testimony about poor working conditions and intimidation. The company paid a $5,500 penalty.

Regarding more recent conditions at the Charlestown facility, there have been five OSHA violations since 2010. In 2015, MassCOSH co-authored a report portraying poor standards for sorters, which included commentary from a former worker who said they left Casella because of the job’s inherent hazards.

“We would find lots of glass, and needles,” she said. “Sometimes workers are punctured and hurt from the needles. We would find dead animals in the bins and it really stinks. It’s also very hot, there isn’t much air [circulation].”

When initially contacted for this story, Casella’s Fusco said, “The working environment at Charlestown is excellent.” Outside sources also vouched that Casella’s safety culture and training program is thought to be one of the more comprehensive in the industry for a company of its size.

But those same sources also recognize that even at its safest, sorting is a tough gig. When problems do occur, they can be serious. Another former Casella worker confirmed two incidents in particular that Fusco later verified. One employee broke their ankle while cutting bales of recyclables in 2014, and another suffered a worse outcome.

Unfortunately, in 2017 an employee did require an amputation of his hand when he reached into a machine in operation—an action he took in direct violation of safety protocols, specifically our Lock-out/Tag-out Program, and which was contrary to his training.”

An OSHA inspection report described the incident:

 

At 2:00 a.m. on August 25, 2017, an employee was working with 2 coworkers while installing a paddle seal on an air lock. One of the coworkers hit the wrong button which turned on the air lock where the employee was working with his second coworker. The employee had his hand amputated when the air lock moved and caught it.

 

In the eyes of labor advocates, these accidents just reinforce the fact that this job merits more attention. Many recycling sorters are immigrants, and some work multiple jobs to support their families. They’re also performing a task that local recycling programs couldn’t exist without. In fact, many in the field believe these sorters are exactly who the living wage was meant to cover.

 

THE EXEMPTIONS

When Baltimore became the first major city to pass a living-wage ordinance in 1994, the federal minimum wage was $4.25 (about $7.17 today). Following years of wage stagnation, municipal privatization and urban disinvestment, advocates wanted a way to drive local change.

 

Boston joined the first wave of cities to harness that energy—which many have likened to today’s “Fight for $15” movement—and passed its own ordinance in 1997. At the time, Mayor Tom Menino said, “It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the rising tide does in fact raise all boats, not just the yachts.”

While that ordinance would later be watered down by business community pushback—foreshadowing what was to come—it nonetheless served as a catalyst. Somerville and Cambridge passed their own ordinances in 1999.

After years of activism in the Boston area and across the country, the labor community was feeling upbeat heading into the 2000s. The Mass minimum wage was $6, but the three cities now had a tool to aid more workers with living wages ranging from $8.23 to $10. At least in theory.

In practice, activists and organizers identified KTI Recycling as a “key company” for living-wage coverage, but one that was expected to put up a fight even before Casella bought it in 1999. Then-Somerville Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay even mentioned the company’s likely exemption during a press conference in July of that year marking the ordinance’s implementation. On May 10, 2000, she submitted a letter to the Board of Aldermen requesting an exemption for a new three-year contract with the company:

 

Recycling services to the City will be curtailed if strict compliance with the LWO is required because KTI will not contract with the City … Following an exhaustive investigation, the City determined that there are no other local recycling companies that can adequately address its needs.

 

Somerville was stuck. The board approved a two-year exemption in June, with future Mayor Joe Curtatone, then an alderman, among the members who voted it out of committee.

Cambridge was next. Later that same year, KTI Residential Sales Manager Greg Appleton wrote multiple letters to the city’s recycling director. One estimated that compliance with Cambridge’s ordinance would cost at least $750,000 per year.

“Our question is—should KTI be considered a Service or Supply vendor?” Appleton’s letter asked. “We believe that we would be a Supply vendor. We currently do have Supply Agreements with some of our customers.”

Cambridge Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi soon wrote an exemption request letter to the city’s purchasing director, categorizing the contract as “recyclables processing services” multiple times. The Cambridge Living Wage Advisory Board (LWAB) approved that waiver in December 2000. At the time, its members expressed a desire to address the issue in coordination with Boston and Somerville, but the board has not been given another chance to vote on the issue in 18 years. Instead, the city manager unilaterally approved another exemption for Casella during the next contract renewal.

These haven’t been the only contracts blessed with living-wage exemptions in the three cities. Various requests for senior and disabled transport, camping programs, parking garages, and child care, among others, have all come up. Still, the continuing pattern of recycling waivers has historically stood out—locally as well as nationally.

Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at the City University of New York, tracked the success of early ordinances in the book Fighting for a Living Wage and views what came next in Boston as particularly notable. Some cities lapsed in their implementation, but Luce said, “Boston was exceptional … it was taking such an active oversight.” As for the recycling piece, the professor added, “The KTI case was really crazy and frustrating.”

During the following two years, Boston officials vetted the issue thoroughly, yet to no avail.

“We hated that they got away with getting an exemption because there was no alternative, but struggled to figure out how to make the argument with the city, or how the city could still use its power to push back against that,” said Lisa Clauson, a former organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

Recycling was profitable—generating $250,000 in 2001—and disrupting that over a labor ordinance was controversial. So after all three companies that bid on Boston’s next recycling contract submitted pricing without any mention of the living wage, the city’s then-DPW Director Joe Casazza filed a hardship waiver request. A transcript of an April 2002 hearing, chaired by Boston Living Wage Administrator Mimi Turchinetz, offers a stark picture of the leverage these companies held at the time. None provided evidence of economic hardship. Workers were not in attendance, and questions were raised about whether they had even been notified.

“Are you at all aware of the impact of these wages on your employees? Like, do you know how they can live, making this little amount of money?” Turchinetz asked.

“Am I aware of it?” replied Ray Volucci of KTI.

“Yes.”

“They—some of them do quite well.”

“They do quite well, okay.”

“(inaudible) we offer them overtime.”

With three industry powerhouses bidding but refusing to enter a contract that required living wages, the labor community became livid.

“Recycling sorters are the very people the living wage ordinance was enacted to help,” Mary Jo Connolly, then a research associate at UMass Boston, said in her testimony. “Waiving the living wage ordinance for Boston’s recycling contract amounts to agreeing to poverty wages for workers at these facilities and using the citizens’ tax dollars to do it.”

“If our living wage ordinance can be tossed aside by any company that threatens us, then it’s not worth anything,” said Betty McGuire, who worked on the issue for ACORN. “It’s not worth all the fighting that we went through to get it passed.”

The week after the Boston hearing, Somerville Mayor Kelly Gay submitted another request to the Board of Aldermen in her city, asking for a new exemption because “KTI has stated that it will not adhere to the requirements of the LWO.”

Kelly Gay’s exemption was granted by the end of the year. Alderman Bruce Desmond was the lone “no” vote, telling a Globe reporter, “If we’re going to be serious about enforcing a living wage ordinance, we have to hold these people accountable.”

Boston put its contract back out for bid in July 2002, and the issue received ongoing coverage throughout the region. In October, two companies, including KTI, again submitted bids that didn’t include the living wage. The city rejected them.

The following January, Turchinetz, the living-wage administrator, convened a second hardship waiver hearing. Digging in its heels, KTI noted that compliance presented a “tremendous cost” and would be impossible without raising prices for all customers. The AFL-CIO called the entire process “an affront”; others questioned why Boston seemed so willing to let KTI dictate the terms.

Public pressure ramped up throughout 2003. Labor groups staged a protest outside KTI in Charlestown that February, while council members expressed their dismay and worker affidavits were sent to the state attorney general’s office.

Some of that activism eventually led to the aforementioned overtime settlement. In the end, though, KTI prevailed. Details about the internal struggles and corporate maneuvering behind the scenes remain unclear, but in December 2003, Turchinetz approved the hardship waiver. Menino, for whom the recycling contract had become a hot potato that garnered negative headlines, extended the KTI contract to 2005.

After that, the media attention disappeared, with future exemptions meeting far less resistance.

 

DOUBLING DOWN

In the nearly 15 years since Boston capitulated under recycling industry pressure, all affected cities in the region have had chances to change course. Instead, they allowed the supply versus services argument to become status quo.

In late 2004, Casella sent a letter to the Cambridge DPW—ahead of a contract renewal—to “reiterate our stance that this is not actually a Service Agreement, but simply a Supply Agreement.” In the communication, educational assistance, company outings, and prizes for avoiding accidents—such as free safety glasses and gloves, or gift certificates to Filene’s and Demoulas—were touted as signs of a positive work environment.

Cambridge City Solicitor Donald Drisdell agreed with the position, laying out his rationale in a January 2005 letter that noted the “substantial sums” paid by Casella for the city’s recyclables. The following month, Somerville solicitor John Gannon cited this specific opinion as rationale for maintaining that city’s policy.

In Boston, the cementing of the waiver happened in a June 2009 memo, authored by then-Corporation Counsel William Sinnott, stating: “The recyclables are delivered to the bidder and title will transfer at that time. No services are performed by the bidder prior to the title transfer.”

Living-wage organizers have been critical of that opinion, saying that it isn’t based on existing statutes, regulations, case law, or other definitions.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they seem to have bought Casella’s interpretation without giving it a serious rigorous thought,” said Richard Juang, an attorney with the Roxbury-based Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE). “Municipalities need to be making their own independent judgments, and as democratic bodies the people they should first and foremost be considering is the residents and workers in their cities. Corporate entities come and go.”

Multiple attempts to contact Sinnott, who is currently in private practice, were unsuccessful.

Some thought Mayor Marty Walsh’s labor background might make him sympathetic to this issue, but he didn’t seem to be when the city’s recycling contract came up for rebid during his early months on the job in 2014. Initial documents mentioned the living-wage requirement, yet emails obtained via public records request show the city’s recycling director quickly clarified this had been done “inadvertently” and that the ordinance wouldn’t apply.

That April, the Walsh transition team’s environmental working group report even called out the issue directly: “If no bidders for recyclables processing contracts are currently willing to offer a living wage to workers, the city should make an official commitment to prefer the first qualified bidder willing to do so, providing an incentive for responsible evolution of the industry.”

Worker advocates sent a letter to Walsh early that June asking for a contract delay based on such factors, but the contract was approved later that month.

When asked after a May 2017 City Hall meeting whether the waiver might be reevaluated in the city’s next contract, Chief of Environment Blackmon, who recently announced that he is leaving the administration, said, “We want to make sure that we live up to all of our responsibilities here in the city of Boston, including anything as it relates to labor.”

Asked later that same month how living-wage compliance might affect Casella’s bid on Boston’s 2019 contract, CEO John Casella said it was up to Boston to make that policy. “How do they want to put the [request for proposals] out? So we’ll put our proposal in based on whatever RFP the city puts out. … That’s their decision in terms of how they want to approach that, not the private sector,” he said at an industry convention in New Orleans.

When asked how the company would respond today, Casella’s Joe Fusco wrote, “We are always open to discussing the economic rationale and their appetite for different cost structures with our municipal customers during bid specifications and contract negotiations.”

 

MONEY TALKS

At least a dozen local governments around the country cover their recyclable sorting contracts under living-wage ordinances, with varying details about how that cost is distributed.

In some cases, the policies have been in place for decades and were enacted with little fanfare. Others came after years of activism, union organizing, litigation, or a combination of the three. In a few cities this even led to back-pay settlements.

Two other examples involved Casella.

In 2005, the City Council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, voted to fund the gap between the living wage and what sorters were making at a municipally owned recycling facility after Casella subsidiary FCR refused to do so. At the time, the cost was $105,650 per year. While Casella no longer operates the facility, that policy continues.

Tompkins County in New York took a similar step in 2015 by approving a one-time $20,000 disbursement to Casella, which then raised wages for recycling workers. Overall, the increase was expected to cost $105,000 per year, with Casella covering the difference

Based on Casella’s experiences in Michigan and New York, and the company’s stance that municipalities set public policy and they just follow it, some feel it is possible for a different arrangement to be formulated in Boston.

That would also require the Walsh administration to live up to its rhetorical position. In a February podcast interview, the mayor shared his thoughts about the relevance of labor movements in the modern economy.

“You can’t raise a family on declining revenue,” Walsh said. “Meanwhile companies are making record profits. I’m not looking to take away from companies, and this sounds like the typical Democratic response, but both can exist together.”

According to Casella’s latest earnings report, which showed $147.5 million in revenue for the first quarter of 2018, business is “stellar” with the exception of one key area—recycling. Like many other companies in the industry, Casella is forecasting millions in lost revenue this year because of China’s big trade changes.

This has led to varying degrees of strife for many of Casella’s municipal customers too—depending on their contract terms—and is almost certainly going to mean higher prices when those contracts come up for renewal. Casella has already begun trying to renegotiate terms with multiple cities beforehand.

With Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville all committed to continuing their recycling programs—regardless of current or future cost spikes—it seems likely all three cities will end up surpassing the amounts at which their wage ordinances technically kick in. Each ordinance specifies in various language that contracts worth a certain amount are subject to living-wage coverage. For Boston, it’s $25,000. In the other two, it’s $10,000.

In Casella’s view, these conditions only stand to bolster the company’s position.

“Market fluctuations in value are a distinct characteristic of tangible goods,” Fusco wrote. “This argument is strengthened when market fluctuations are at play, as the goods have shifting values that impact what customers delivering recyclables pay based on the quality of the materials.”

Walsh’s press office echoed this interpretation in an unattributed email statement: “Regardless of fluctuations in the City’s revenue share, the nature of the contract remains unchanged. Since the contract is for the acceptance or sale of goods and is not a service contract, it is exempt from the living wage ordinance.”

Boston’s Living Wage Advisory Committee has considered formally asking Walsh to change course on the recycling contract, along with broader recommendations to update the ordinance. Draft language has been discussed for months, but nothing has been finalized. (Just this month, the Walsh administration proposed a living wage ordinance amendment to broaden protections for security and maintenance workers at city-owned buildings. In a press release touting the move, the mayor said, “I am proud that we are leading by example in lifting up workers who provide critical services to our city and oftentimes go unrecognized for their important contributions.”)

Cambridge Director of Communication Lee Gianetti initially agreed to provide a statement about his city’s current position but has not done so as of publication.

Somerville reiterated its goods versus services stance in an emailed statement, but left the door open for reconsideration. Comments at a June budget hearing show that remains the case.

“We have actually reached out to Boston and Cambridge to understand how they might approach this, as I think we have varying expirations on the contract,” Mayor Curtatone said after an alderman brought up the topic. “I think together we’d have greater impact on that issue. … It’s a fair point and we do agree on that.”

 

 

FOLLOW THE LITER

Hopes of collaborating on recycling have come up in all three cities before, though all of their contracts remain staggered. Somerville’s is up in 2021, Cambridge’s in 2020, and Boston’s next year.

While there appears to be nascent interest in rekindling the issue from officials across the Charles in both cities, it will be up to Boston to command the lead.

After initially demurring that it wasn’t their place to get involved with the “political” side of this process, the city’s “zero waste” consulting team has offered possibilities and new approaches. One is to create a two-phase bid process for the next recycling contract, in which price alone would not be the sole factor. Another idea, mentioned at an advisory meeting in May, was for Boston to build its own recycling facility, as Somerville considered in the ’90s. The costs are high, though, and any such project would take years to fund and complete.

The city could also theoretically contract with another company—which it has done for select neighborhoods in the past—but their facilities are all farther away than Charlestown. Other unresolved questions include how to reconcile each city’s different wage rate, or the fact that the majority of cities sending material to Casella don’t have living-wage ordinances at all.

On the compensation front, the gradual increase to a $15 state minimum wage will help recycling sorters in the long run; in the short run, a looming boost could motivate some leaders to address the concept of living-wage rates right now.

“The point of the minimum wage is to be at the very bottom, and I don’t know that cities should be racing to the bottom,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, whose district includes Casella’s facility. “To keep a middle class or working class in Boston we have to have that realistic conversation about how we can’t afford to just pay minimum wages no matter what they are.”

Edwards may be setting the tone for upcoming discussions about the recycling contract, adding, “I think we should recognize the power that we have, or any city should, as an economic engine for a company. … That’s very powerful to say to them, ‘We will not contract with you.’”

Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan said he believes a broader conversation about wage equity is needed, beyond just individual contracts. “If a company says, ‘We have to charge you this much and we pay a living wage,’ and another company says, ‘We charge you less, but we don’t pay a living wage,’ then I think we should go with the company that pays a living wage even if it’s more expensive,” Zondervan said. “That’s the point of having a living-wage ordinance.”

Somerville Alderman Ben Ewen-Campen agreed that maintaining a living wage above $15 was still important and said he would be open to an arrangement in which the city foots some of the bill—under the right circumstances—if it can help the sorters.

“Somerville is a place where workers’ rights are a top priority for the residents, and I think we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is,” Ewen-Campen said.

Change won’t come easy—especially without a visible plea from the workers, consensus from local politicians, and increased public engagement around recycling in general. The average person still has no concept of where their recycling goes, let alone who has to handle their empties. Even when attention was high in the early 2000s, advocates still lost. Though with Boston taking on a major aspiration such as “zero waste” and the financial model for recycling upended, this may be an ideal time to hash it out once and for all.

“We want to make sure that this planning process, which gives us a limited window of opportunity to talk about our waste system, is doing it in a comprehensive way,” said Papali of Zero Waste Boston. “We want to make sure that we do right by the workers in the industry and capture all the economic value.”

The next Zero Waste Advisory Committee meeting is on July 16. Final recommendations are expected this fall, and discussions about the 2019 recycling contract are already underway.

Depending on what happens, Boston—and as an extension, the entire region—could be in for one of the most drastic shifts toward sustainability and equity in the history of its waste and recycling system.

Or not.


This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and published in DigBoston.


Cole is a garbage enthusiast and senior editor at Waste Dive. He was born in Maine and lives in Somerville and is the treasurer of the SPJ New England chapter.


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