Demystifying the recycling quagmire

  • Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste District in the shed full of recycling bins stored at the Franklin County Fairgrounds. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Ezra Ward of Leverett, right, returns recycling bins he used at a wedding to Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste District at the shed full of recycling bins stored at the Franklin County Fairgrounds. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • In September, attendees enjoyed a pollinator panel at Saints James and Andrew Church in Greenfield. The congregation's Green Team will sponsor a program about recycling on Sunday, Nov. 20, to be presented by Amy Donovan, program director of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District. PHOTO BY JOAN MARIE JACKSON

  • Local residents who host events can borrow Mass DEP-funded bins and signs from the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District. The apparatus are used to sort trash, recycling, and compost at the Franklin County Fair, Green River Festival, weddings, reunions, and other public and private gatherings. PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN

  • Amy Donovan of the Franklin County Solid Waste District. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 11/7/2022 3:28:28 PM

Ezra Ward attended a wedding last week that involved close to 200 people, “yet we generated only about two bags of trash, even though we had a three-day party, including sharing meals.”

Inspired by his experience of helping with composting and recycling at the Franklin County Fair this year, Ward helped revelers categorize disposables in environmentally responsible ways. “It was the groom’s idea,” said Ward, a Leverett resident, “and I was happy to help.”

Instead of loading up the landfill, the celebration resulted in half a small dumpster of recyclables and 10 barrel-sized bags of compostables destined for Martin’s Farm in Greenfield.

“When I helped Amy Donovan at the fair,” said Ward, “I became familiar with the bins, bags and signs available through her program.” Donovan is program director of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District.

The co-founder of Montague-based Woodsmith Forestry, Ward is proud that his business sponsors recycling initiatives. And since the groom was the other co-founder, “from day one of wedding planning, we aimed to avoid creating a trash heap,” said Ward. “But you have to set it up right, because all of the good intentions in the world don’t work unless you plan in advance.”

Ward decries materials that look sustainable and green, but are lined with plastic. “Many Valley restaurants use those for take-out containers,” he said. “It makes customers feel good, but that stuff gets shredded, adding to the microplastics problem.”

Ward noted that he’s “gotten pumped, thinking something I’ve bought is compostable, but I then see the plastic. If it’s polylined, it’s not truly green, even if it has a picture of a leaf or the earth on it.” Ward said this amounts to “greenwashing,” which describes actions taken by a company purporting to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes.

Many local residents do care about our planet: people sort paper and cardboard into one bin, and place bottles, cans, and plastics in another. In an era of vast retail choices, environmentally concerned shoppers try to keep in mind what will happen to packaging once they’ve consumed the product.

But in line with Ward’s concerns about greenwashing, a recent Greenpeace report claiming that plastics are not truly recyclable came as a jolt, leading some to feel overwhelmed by dishonest public relations. How, then, can consumers make a difference and not get mired in despair?

Amy Donovan cites regional success stories. Those interested in learning more can hear Donovan on Sunday, Nov. 20 at Saints James and Andrew Episcopal Church in Greenfield, where she’ll present a program from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Donovan’s presentation is the third in a series sponsored by the congregation’s Green Team, according to Ella Ingraham, a team member. “In September, we hosted a three-person panel on the topic of pollinators and distributed native plants to attendees. In October, I did a presentation on composting. We’re looking forward to Amy’s recycling presentation.”

Donovan grew up in Wilbraham and loved going to the transfer station with her father. “I can’t stand waste and litter,” she said. “Every place I’ve worked, I’ve put recycling systems into place. In restaurant work, and in theater and dance departments in college, I always taught people about recycling. When I worked at MIT, I joined the staff recycling committee. So my current position is my dream job.”

As a board member of the state-owned Springfield Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), Donovan knows the recycling business inside and out, and describes a beehive of activity related to regional recycling, with staff, volunteers, coordinators, and lively discussions involving “engaged people who care about these issues.” Donovan maintains the Springfield MRF website and creates the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” guide that appears as an insert each year in the Recorder and in other places.

“News stories about the Greenpeace report left impressions that are simply wrong,” said Donovan, who’s frustrated that such accounts are often disseminated in the media “without background checking and real reporting.” Many people don’t understand the big picture, she said. “Throughout the 30 years of the modern recycling economy, the public rarely paid attention. It’s only when the bottom fell out in 2018 that people started noticing the industry.”

One problem in interpreting data is that lots of places in the U.S. have no recycling programs. “When statistics are averaged over the whole country, it makes the numbers look bad,” Donovan said, and skewed numbers are replicated in news reports. In our region, however, said Donovan, recycling is “a quiet success story.”

Many materials (including plastics) are indeed recyclable and lead to profits, noted Donovan. “Often, a buyer will even provide their own transportation to Alabama, Illinois, or Indiana – some of our end markets – when they purchase materials from our Springfield facility.”

Due to education campaigns and excellent signage, people in our region are used to sorting materials into separate bins. But in other places, people throw everything into one bin, a system referred to as single-stream. “Machinery is used to separate stuff,” said Donovan, “increasing the cost astronomically. Sure, it’s easier for people at home. But it leads to contamination,” corrupting the process.

In fiscal year 2022, member towns of the Springfield MRF earned an average of $21.72/ton for their recyclables, said Donovan. “Locally, the 21 member towns of the Franklin County Solid Waste District collectively received $60,000 for that year. Why would we go to all this trouble if it wasn’t truly profitable? That’s why reports like the one from Greenpeace are misleading.”

Donovan said that, until 10 or 15 years ago, there wasn’t much public awareness about these topics. “But then social media exposed the amount of plastic in the oceans and the impact of litter on wildlife. People started to make connections between their own waste and global problems.” Many were also unaware that landfill trash contributes methane, a potent climate changing gas, to the atmosphere.

“Reducing, reusing, and composting food waste are better strategies than sending waste by truck or rail to landfills in distant states,” said Donovan. Food waste can be easily separated and composted and makes up about 22% of residential trash in Massachusetts, while compostable paper makes up 9% of what we throw out.

The value of recyclables go up and down over the years. China stopped imports of foreign recyclables in 2018. “In the 15 years prior, many U.S. recycling programs and haulers – especially those on the West Coast – relied heavily on China’s demand for recycled materials for manufacturing.” With the U.S. unable to send a large percentage of recyclables to China, “the market hit rock bottom and temporarily had nowhere for recyclables to go.”

Within months, however, investment in recycling capacity grew and many recyclables were on track to be processed domestically. “When the pandemic hit, demand for most materials, especially cardboard and plastics, soared to record highs,” said Donovan. “In fact, HDPE Natural (No. 2) plastic (used for opaque milk, water, and cider jugs) hit a record high in Feb. 2021: 70 cents per pound; the pricing peaked in Sept. 2021 at $1.10 per pound.”

Understanding the nitty-gritty of waste streams in our region, nation, and world can feel like a full-time job. That’s why it’s worth checking in with someone who tracks the issues full-time and loves to share them with the public. People who attend Donovan’s Nov. 20 presentation at Saints James and Andrew will come away with useful information and a hopeful message: “Recycling and composting save money. The less you put into the trash bags you’ve purchased, the better for you and our environment.”

Donovan wants people to know that “their efforts don’t go to waste, literally. Doing it right takes effort, but it’s not a waste of your time.”

The 2022 Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (RRR) guide can be found here: For more information, visit and click on “What’s Recyclable at the MRF?”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and a musician, artist and mom. She welcomes comments from readers at


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