Clean Team | Nantucket, MA
Island Science

Stay Classy Not Trashy

Dr. Sarah Treanor Bois
Director of Research & Education at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation

Whether you are a year round resident, a seasonal homeowner, or a summer visitor renting for a week, Nantucket’s waste disposal system affects you.

Did you know that the island used to get rid of much of its trash by openly burning it at the Madaket landfill? Those days may be long gone, but we are still trying to settle on the best solution to a trashy problem.

Back in 1986, Town officials selected composting over shipping waste off-island for incineration. The Rhode Island firm, Waste Options, currently manages the solid waste composting facility on the island. Household trash is run through a composting digester and turned into compost over the course of several days. The compost is then available (for free) at the entrance to the dump.

Nantucketers have been separating out recycling since 1996: first by the various plastics, tin, glass, paper (newspaper vs office paper), and cardboard. This mandatory recycling program won accolades in 2009 when the island was recognized by a national advocacy group for obtaining a 92% recycling rate: a rate, at the time, higher than the previous winner, San Francisco.

A lot has changed about recycling since then. Most notable, China has stopped taking a lot of recyclables, including most papers and many plastics. Many communities around the country have suspended their recycling programs— a devastating environmental blow. However, Nantucket is looking to how we can make changes and remain sustainable long term. One solution is an overhaul to our current waste system.

This year, the Town hired Graeme Durovich as the Town’s DPW recycling solid waste coordinator. Since coming on board, she has been working to streamline the landfill operations and recycling program. Graeme is also working with what we have, ensuring that the composting digester works to its fullest potential, which may mean limiting some of what is put in there.

That’s meant some big changes for how we separate our recycling as well as our trash as of February 1, 2019. It’s been a lot for some Nantucket residents to get used to, but it’s what needs to happen for the systems to work properly.

“What we’re trying to do is reduce the amount of material that’s going into the landfill,” Rob McNeil, DPW director said. “The only stuff that’s currently getting landfilled is stuff that’s thrown in the composter that shouldn’t be there.”

Here are the new categories:


We recycle glass, plastic, tin/aluminum, and cardboard. For the cardboard, this is labelled as “shipping boxes.” That’s corrugated, heavy duty cardboard which must be broken down and flattened before put down the chute.

Plastic has multiple chutes, but they are all comingled. You no longer have to separate the plastics out by number, it all goes together.

Tin is still in the same place it’s always been. Remember, if you have cans with deposits (beer and soda), you can drop them off in the shed across the parking lot from the recycle center. The Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts separate the cans and reap the rewards. It’s financially beneficial for the island scouting program and allows them to be autonomous from the national system and supports many of their community service activities. Glass is still glass, but is now moved to a bin closer to the recycling area.


This is one of our new categories. It is everything that will go into the compost digester: all food scraps, paper, pizza boxes, newspaper, pet waste, cooking oil, etc. It can be brought in a clear plastic trash bag (like the former “household trash”), but it is preferred to be in paper bags.

Everything in this dumpster will go into the digester, where it will be turned into compost over the course of several days.


This is all the rest. Plastic bags, Styrofoam, milk cartons, things of mixed materials, diapers, wipes, plastic wrap, etc.

The Town’s website has lots of information on the new regulations including a great infographic on the categories downloadable here: nantucketma. gov/242/Solid-Waste-Recycling.

For some, this is an annoying change in the way they do a daily task. For others, it’s part of a cultural shift in how we view our waste. Separating the waste out like this you realize just how much garbage you produce that is not degradable or recyclable. For me, it’s made me rethink plastic wrap, especially, but other packaging as well.

Many island businesses are working to reduce their use of plastics. While we already have a ban on plastic bags, restaurants and stores are working to improve their takeout containers to be more sustainable. Compostable options are more attractive than recyclable plastics. This is, in part, due to the passing of a single-use plastic ban at Special Town Meeting last October. As part of this, shops and restaurants have just over a year to take certain single- use plastic items, including cups, straws, water bottles, off their shelves.

Unfortunately for us, the trash isn’t just relegated to the dump. There has been an increase in litter, debris, and landscape waste in many of our public areas and conservation lands. Enter the Nantucket Clean Team. This dedicated non-profit group of volunteers picks up litter on the island from April to November. Every Saturday morning starting at 8am, volunteers meet at a pre-determined location to pick up litter for an hour. In the course of six+ months, the Clean Team has picked up over four tons of litter and debris. Follow their Facebook page to get location information. All are welcome!

Clean Team | Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Clean Team in Action

While the Clean Team has done amazing work, the litter has kept piling up. This past April, a new idea was hatched to give financial incentive to help clean up the island. The Nantucket Litter Derby encouraged people to form teams to pick up trash wherever they wanted on the morning of April 14th. The team with the heaviest trash would win a cash prize.

The after party was at Cisco Brewery, so fun was had by all after a morning of garbage collection. That one day effort by 24 teams resulted in the collection of more than two tons of garbage! Highlights include five tires, a washer and dryer, bags of sheet rock, wood, and bicycles! The event was so successful, the organizers already picked a date for next year: Saturday, April 5th, 2020.

Nantucket has a unique opportunity as an island; we can work to be sustainable and take care of our waste ourselves. First, follow the new regulations with all of your waste. Second, reduce your use of plastics and non-compostable items. Third, reuse what you do have! Why buy new, when you can reuse? This goes for containers, construction waste/lumber, and clothing. Let’s rethink our waste stream and keep our island clean and sustainable.

Articles by Date from 2012