A Conversation with Carl Spector, City of Boston Environment Commissioner

Carl Spector, commissioner, City of Boston environment department, was the guest speaker at the Boston Building Resources annual meeting, held May 22 at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. He gave a brief overview of the city’s goals for addressing climate change and carbon emissions, and then answered questions on topics that ranged from the recyclability of a used pizza box to the city’s plans for dealing with sea level rise.

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The environment department oversees climate mitigation and adaptation, environmental protection, waste and recycling, and historic preservation. Strategies to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the impact of climate change are embodied by two programs: Climate Ready Boston and Carbon Free Boston. 

Climate Ready Boston is an initiative to prepare the city for the long-term impacts of climate change. Even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions immediately, the environment would continue to change, so the city has developed detailed plans to protect against sea-level rise and address increases in temperature and precipitation.

Carbon Free Boston is the city’s long-term initiative to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A report by the Green Ribbon Commission and the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, released this spring, focused on four key sectors: energy, buildings, transportation, and waste. Transportation currently accounts for 25 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of Go Boston 2030 recommendations will focus on more walking, biking, and use of public transportation.

During the meeting, Carl—a BBR member (on and off) for 20 years—answered questions from members that focused on waste and recycling, sea level rise, and efficient buildings/historic preservation.

Waste and recycling

According to Carl, the city is currently reviewing contracts for waste and recycling. The Zero Waste Advisory Committee, established in 2018, is recommending strategies to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost at least 80 to 90 percent of the city’s solid waste. 

One of the most important aspects of recycling is to do it right so that the recycling stream is not contaminated. But there is confusion around what can and can’t be dropped into a single stream recycling bin, such as a used pizza box. Currently, multiple contractors are used for recycling across the state, and requirements vary by contractor.

Another key goal is to reduce the overall waste stream. In Boston, 30 percent of waste (by weight) is food or organic materials. The state requires entities that produce a ton of food waste per week to send it to a composting facility. Project Oscar, a pilot program now underway in five neighborhoods, gives local residents a place to drop off residential food scraps for composting. One of the locations is Curtis Hall Community Center at 20 South Street, Jamaica Plain. The city is eager to determine if this practice can be implemented citywide. Carl noted, “If we do establish separation of organic waste, that will add a third bin” for waste disposal, alongside a home’s trash and recycling bins.

Discussion about recycling and reusing home furniture and goods, office equipment, and other materials led to a suggestion that information about recycling and reuse be distributed along with building permits issued to developers when they gut existing buildings. Social media is a useful tool to inform neighbors of discarded but usable furniture, home goods, and clothing available for free: for example, Everything Free JP or the Buy Nothing Project on Facebook. A city-led effort to facilitate reuse that is broader and more coordinated would be helpful. The city is also looking into how to work with producers upstream and investigating extended product responsibility, which requires manufacturers to collect and dispose of products they produce. 

And that pizza box? According to the city’s guidelines on trash and recycling, “You can put your pizza box in recycling if it does not contain food residue. The liner should go in the trash. Boxes that have been contaminated with grease or oil cannot be recycled. However if the top of the box is clean, simply tear it in half and place in your recycling bin for collection.” 

Sea level rise

Much attention at the annual meeting was given to the issue of sea level rise in the city and strategies to address it. Carl said that plans are based on an expected 40 inches of sea level rise over the next 50 years. How much and when depends on how successful we will be globally in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The feasibility of a harbor barrier between Hull and Deer Island was investigated. The authors of the study recommended that, instead of a barrier, the city focus its climate resilience strategy for the next several decades on a shore-based multi-layered approach as described by Climate Ready Boston

Neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis and planning are underway or scheduled in East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston, Downtown, the North End, and Dorchester. “Basically, what you do is raise the coastline,” Carl said. “What can we do to knit together solutions into a system that provides comprehensive protection?” Among the current efforts under consideration or underway:

  • Improve green space to incorporate flood resilience measures. For example, the Joe Moakley Park and surrounding roadways in South Boston could be renovated to improve the recreational function of the park while also adding features to mitigate the impact of sea level rise on the neighborhood.

  • Develop solutions for privately owned buildings along the water. For example, is there a seawall that can be raised? Implement engineering specifications to protect the Harborwalk against levels of flooding expected in 50 years. 

  • Conduct parcel-by-parcel analysis of vulnerability. How do we expect the water to flow and how can it be addressed? For example, in Charlestown, the city determined that raising one block of Main Street near the Schrafft Center by two feet would provide a couple of decades of protection. This strategy is integrated into the current redesign of Sullivan Square and Rutherford Ave.

  • Enhance wetlands. Coastal wetlands store carbon more efficiently than forests. A study published in March in the journal Nature reported that, when faced with sea-level rise, coastal wetlands respond by burying even more carbon in their soils. New England's salt marshes provide additional benefits, such as filtering toxins from groundwater and buffering houses from storm surges. How do we raise an existing salt marsh by a few inches per decade so it grows with sea level rise and doesn’t drown? Carl mentioned a proposal to expand salt marshes in East Boston along Border Street; many regulatory issues would first need to be resolved.

Efficient buildings and historic preservation

The Boston Landmarks Commission and neighborhood district commissions operate out of the environment department. Carl noted that they are aiming to improve communication to help people appreciate the importance of historic preservation in a broader sense, such as restoring existing windows rather than replacing them with new ones.

Operation of buildings is key to realizing the potential efficiencies. Carl explained that parameters are in place to ensure new buildings are as efficient as possible. The current green building requirement in Boston’s zoning code, established in 2007, needs updating. There are two levels in the state’s building energy code: base code and stretch code. The base code sets energy performance standards for all buildings in the state. At the request of many communities, the state added a stretch code—a higher performance requirement—that municipalities have the option of adopting. Every three years, the base code is reviewed and has been strengthened. It has now caught up to the stretch code. The state needs to push the stretch code ahead again. Many, including the environment department, are urging the state to set a net zero stretch code that would require new buildings to generate as much energy as they use. 

One audience member observed that it is nearly impossible to get an existing residential building to net zero without significant modification, and that a lot can be done to increase efficiency in existing buildings before net zero is realized. Carl responded, “Net zero is a goal, but may not be achievable in one step.” Taking incremental steps toward net zero is a practical approach.

Another questioner mentioned the amount of new glass and steel construction, citing the Seaport District and the Ink Block in particular. What can be done to reduce the use of glass and hardscape and to preserve and create green space? Carl responded that the city is working to raise the performance standards for all buildings, particularly for large construction. He cited competing interests: aggressive goals for adding housing of all types alongside environmental interests. How can goals for efficiency, protecting green space, and reducing heat in the city be reconciled with the desire for growth and economic activity?

Carl concluded, “It’s getting easier and easier in the sense that our understanding of how to do that gets better, the technology gets better, and the importance of it is more and more understood by everyone working on this. The mayor has a very good understanding of the different aspects of it, and it’s a challenge to try to bring them all together. That’s the work that I and my colleagues in the environment department do with lots of allies inside and outside of City Hall.”

—Kathy Brown