Illegal Dumping Difficult for Towns to Manage, as Needles Make Cleanup Dangerous

Jun 22, 2016

Mashpee Town Manager Rodney Collins stopped his car and looked out the window at a sectional couch.

"A couple weeks ago, this was not here," he said.

We were at the overflow parking lot at South Cape Beach. The beige-colored sofa was gross, and it was just tossed to one side of the lot. There's plenty of trash strewn around, too.

"People come to this parking lot, Sage Lot Pond parking lot, and they’re supposed to be able to enjoy the recreation, enjoy the trail," Collins said. "They are supposed to be able to walk over to South Cape Beach. … There are cans, there are bottles, there’s debris all over the place. And now, on top of all that, we have the remnants of a two-piece couch.”

Collins is just about a year into his job as town manager, although he was police chief for a decade before that. As we drove around town, he told me about the time Conservation Agent Drew McManus took him out into the woods to show him what people leave there. Collins said he's been focused on the issue ever since.

“You see the litter along the side of the road, you see it in the parking lot," he said. "You even see it at the beach. And ironically, at the beach, we have trash containers. And there are still people throwing things out of their cars, into the parking lot, onto the beach, wherever! It never ceases to amaze me."

This overflow parking lot for South Cape Beach in Mashpee was clean a few weeks ago, said Mashpee Town Manager Rodney Collins. But now it's littered with debris, and someone dumped a sectional couch here.
Credit Sean Corcoran

Town leaders like Collins say they're obligated to keep their communities clean and safe. This is a tourist area, after all. So towns are installing gates, they're hiding video cameras, and they're dispatching cleanup crews to police roads. But the pollution problem is becoming tougher to manage.

"Every town is seeing the same thing, and none of us really have an answer," said Mashpee DPW Director Catherine Laurent. Although they've had some success stopping illegal dumping in conservation and open space areas by installing gates to block access.

"We have seen an improvement. But, I guess, what we’re finding now instead is people are more blatant," she said. "They’ll just drop something at the end of a road. They aren’t even going into the woods anymore, they’re just putting it in front of someone’s house or a cul-de-sac."

In addition to the gates, conservation agents McManus and Katelyn Cadoret said they're increasingly using hidden cameras in areas they know people are doing things they shouldn't.

A few days ago a camera captured the license plate of a truck in an off-limit area. But today, Cadoret shows me a small, box-size camera that looks kinda broken, with a weird wire hanging out of it.

"We came across a vandalized camera," she said, noting that vandalism is one of the reasons Cadoret is reluctant to talk about the cameras.

"We’ve had cameras in the past," she said. "But part of my position is to be able to expand on our surveillance and just [get] more manpower in the department."

"They'll just drop something at the end of a road. They aren't even going into the woods anymore. They're just putting it in front of someone's house or a cul-de-sac."

Some of the stuff people dump would cost money to dispose of at a transfer station. There usually are fees for things like mattresses and old appliances. But, if cost is the rationale people use for dumping, Laurent rejects it. She said communities work to keep fees low, and in Mashpee, there are discounts in place.

"Residence and property owners can bring mattresses at no cost to the transfer station," she said. "We’re still finding them in the woods. Scrap metal, no charge to dispose of scrap metal. We find scrap metal in the woods. So, yes, there are items that we do charge separately for. But that’s really just recouping the cost to the town to recycle those items."

Picking up trash from roadsides and hauling it out of the woods is hard, seemingly endless work. And it's also become more dangerous.

More often than ever, people are tossing hypodermic needles out of cars and leaving them in conservation areas. The DPW, the police, conservation agents - they're all dealing with needles. Mashpee Health agent Glenn Harrington said he's even been retrieving needles from out back. Behind town hall.

“We have found syringes, usually on Monday mornings, in the parking lot right here at town hall," he said. "People seem to be sitting in the parking lot, dumping the needles and moving on, so we are finding them Monday morning.”

Just like illegal dumping, needles aren't a Mashpee problem alone. Every community in the region is dealing with it.

Sandwich is one such town. So, in a corner of the cramped Sandwich fire station is what looks like an oversized washing machine. The things you put in it do get clean. They also gets torn, crushed, munched and a bunch of other cool verbs that mean 'breaking stuff down into tiny pieces.'

"It grinds it up into a fine confetti," said Deputy Sandwich Fire Chief John Burke, who brought this piece of innovation to the station. He first saw one up at Boston University, where he teaches part-time, and he thought it would be valuable to fire fighters.

"What the machine does is it disposes and sterilizes the medical waste or needle sharps," he said.

Sandwich Deputy Fire Chief John Burke brought this $30,000 machine to town at no charge. It both breaks down and sanitizes medical waste and needles.

The station is beta testing this thirty-thousand-dollar innovation, which has been shredding bloody fabrics and grinding up hypodermics since September, at no charge to the department.

"All you need is a plug and some water," he said. "And what you hear occasionally is the steam - the water being heated up. And it steams the medical waste to a temperate of 132 degrees. And that is a requirement to sterilize."

After thirty minutes of steaming and grinding, what comes out is a confetti-like mix of cloth, plastic and tiny pieces of metal. Burke said it's so safe you can literally run your hands through it. I'm not running my hands through the stuff, but I take some on my palm and sift through it, amazed. Burke said he reacted the same way.

"I'm telling ya, it was like, for me, I'm looking at it, and I'm going, 'This, this can't be, right?' Cause you have needles like we use in the ambulance, and then you put it in, and it literally comes out the bottom and you're putting your hands through it."

Burke said the stuff is so clean, it can be thrown into the household trash.

"If there was any sharp edge at all, and say it were to knick your finger, it's all sterilized," he said. "It's cleaner. This is the cleanest trash you will put in a waste stream."

When the medical waste sanitizing machine completes a 30-minute load, what comes out is confetti-like mix of debris that can be disposed of in the household trash.
Credit Sean Corcoran

There's no shortage of hypodermic needles to dispose of. Firefighters bring them back from overdose calls, and Burke said sometimes residents bring them in in coffee containers. Police officers from the station next door bring in needles, too. Many times they take them from suspects. Sometimes they're reported by citizens.

"In 2012, we responded to 19 calls for hypodermic needles either on the roadside, in the neighborhood. In the parking lot. 2015 we had 36 calls," said Sandwich Lt. Joshua Bound. He said needles have been found all over - conservation areas and beaches, even local neighborhood streets.

"We'll get calls from neighbors, 'I was walking down the street, and we suspect a passerby just flicked the needle out of a window.'"

So, like Mashpee with illegal dumping, Sandwich is turning to enforcement. And cameras.

"We're out there. We're making stops," Bound said. "We're talking to people. We've increased patrols in these problem areas, areas like our public beaches. We do have some surveillance now. So, we're keeping an eye out."

They're also asking for people's help. Imploring residents - if you see a needle on the ground or spy a pickup truck loaded down with furniture as it takes a turn into the woods, call them, officials say. They want to hear about it.