MALDEN, Mass.— Saving the planet can be a messy proposition.

This is indelibly clear to Ron Zanazzo, who spends mornings rifling through garbage bags, looking for envelopes or documents that can identify to whom the trash belongs.

“In the summer, it can be pretty disgusting,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “In the winter it’s not as bad because it’s not maggot-infested and all of that.”

Zanazzo is a city employee in Malden, Massachusetts, which, as a part of a drive to be more environmentally friendly, now charges residents for their trash (one of many approaches that cities are trying out in order to cut down on trash).

Malden is one of about 1,200 cities nationwide that has implemented so-called Pay-as-You-Throw programs, which charge residents for garbage bags. The municipal garbage trucks won’t pick up any trash that’s not in marked Malden bags, which cost $1 for a 15-gallon bag, $2 for a 33-gallon bag. Since residents have to now pay for every garbage bag they use, the thinking goes, they’ll recycle and compost more. The city picks up recycling and yard waste for free.

This has saved the city money, since it costs less to have less trash hauled. Malden’s trash tonnage was cut in half between 2006 and 2013, when it implemented the program. Another Massachusetts city, Worcester, saw solid-waste tonnage drop 47 percent in the first year it implemented the program, to 22,810 tons from 43,288 tons.

“Before you had this bag-based program, you were counting on residents to be volunteers in this process,” said Mark Dancy, the president of  WasteZero, which advises on Pay-as-You-Throw programs for Malden and other cities. “Now they’re part of it, because it’s in their best interest. No amount of advertising or promotion can get that kind of result.”

Malden residents have not, as a whole, loved this idea. Throwing everything into the garbage and waiting for someone to haul it away is easy. Thinking about whether you can recycle yogurt cups, plastic bags and textbooks, then cleaning and folding them appropriately, and then putting them in the correct bins is not. People pushed back.

They lost their fight, but are rebelling in other ways. They buy trash bags from other places and then leave garbage in public trash cans or out in front of other people’s houses to avoid fees. They leave recycling in the clear bags marked for recycling, but put throw trash in those bags, too. They put things on their curb that garbage men can’t take, seeming to hope, beyond reason, that the items will magically disappear.

Ron Zanazzo sorts through items that aren’t recyclable. (Alana Semuels)

“We have heard quite a few complaints concerning litter in our streets, unkempt trash and illegal dumping during this winter season,” the city told its residents, on its Facebook page.

That’s where Zanazzo comes in, whose job it is to sleuth through the bags’ rubbish, write tickets, and levy fines. I spent a morning with him, following the garbage truck route and looking for suspicious trash and households who have tried to leave out recycling that can’t be recycled. To the untrained eye, Malden’s trash collection system seems well-organized. Trash cans are marked with bright stickers that say “trash.” Cardboard boxes are folded neatly in bins, clearly meant to be recycled. The blue “Malden” bags give an aura of team spirit to the town, as if everyone is getting ready for homecoming simply by neatly disposing of trash.

But Zanazzo knows better. Humans are slobs.   

“Look at this,” he says, slowing his truck near a home with recycling bins innocently set out front. Amid the orange-juice cartons and newspaper in the recycling bin: half-full paint cans. Paint cans can’t be recycled. He writes a ticket.

We pass a bookshelf that has been unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk in front of a house. Not allowed. Zanazzo writes a ticket. We find a collection of black trash bags outside a house that is under construction. Inside are food wrappers, wood chips, and Styrofoam. That is definitely not allowed. Zanazzo moves the bags inside the house’s picket fence. Then he writes a ticket.

Some of our most personal belongings end up in the trash. The recently opened ice-cream container that somehow got consumed in one night. The envelope for the self-help book received in the mail after eating an entire container of ice cream in one night. Boxes of tissues and a battered self-help book that didn’t work the way it was advertised. One might think those things are private, but once they’re in the trash, they’re fair game for Zanazzo. Most of those things can be recycled, after all.

It’s amazing how much stuff is recyclable. It’s ridiculous,” Zanazzo said.

Malden residents must pay for blue city trash bags. (Alana Semuels)

The tickets left behind are polite reminders to residents on proper trash disposal and recycling techniques. They say:


Zanazzo writes these tickets for people who put out household carpeting as trash, or trash that is not in a blue Malden bag, or more than one bulk item per week, or television monitor or tires or wood or toilets. (By state law, residents are on their own for toilet disposal.) It’s up to residents to know the rules, and to know what can and can’t be recycled.

Other efforts have failed: Malden tried distributing bins for compost. This led to rat problems, and also tornados of food and scraps in high-wind situations. Malden no longer distributes compost bins.

This house was written up for leaving out too many bulk items. (Alana Semuels)

It’s amazing how many people leave personal information in the trash, he says. About three-quarters of the unidentified trash bags he finds have something—pizza boxes, junk mail, receipts—with some kind of personal information that allows Zanazzo to find the culprit and write a ticket.

Zanazzo once was not a recycler. When he moved into his first house in Malden, it was a fixer-upper. He threw away half of the house. It was probably recyclable. He didn’t know.

Now, he’s the biggest recycler in his neighborhood. He’s got bins and bins of recycling. He has compost bins under his kitchen sink and recycling cans on his porch.

“It’s a pain in the neck, really,” he said. “But it’s the right thing to do.”