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Be Connected: Behind-the-scenes with Brian Coughlin, Superintendent of Waste Reduction

All across the City of Boston, people are working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to make the City’s biggest and brightest ideas a reality. In our “Behind-The-Scenes” series, we sit down with them to provide a glimpse into who makes it all work, what they do, and how they do it.

In this edition, we’re “talkin’ trash” with the City of Boston’s man-with-the (Zero Waste) -plan, Superintendent of Waste Reduction Brian Coughlin. We discuss the right and wrong ways to recycle this holiday season, what it will take to make Boston a world leader in waste reduction, and why you should take a closer look at what’s in your trash can right now.

brian couglin interview

Learn more about Boston's Zero Waste initiative, and find information about trash and recycling in the City of Boston.

Brian, I just want to start by saying thank you, for letting me pick your brain and share with our employees. I did my (very modest) research this morning and almost immediately fell into a rabbit hole of wanting to learn more.

Great to be here, Thanks for the opportunity. There’s lots to talk about, and now is a good time to remind readers of some key do's and don'ts when it comes to recycling and trash. Also Christmas tree composting, which will be an option during the first two full weeks of January, on your recycling day. 

By the way, a quick PSA: styrofoam and plastic bags aren't recyclable. Please help spread the word! Big no-no.

I always like to begin by asking: what do you do at the City of Boston, and in what circumstances would I come to you for something?

Under the leadership of Chief of Streets, Chris Osgood, my team and I are responsible for managing the daily collection and disposal of all residential trash, recycling, and yard waste in the City of Boston. That's approximately 60,000 households per day, and over 240,000 tons of material annually. We also lead programs and initiatives to move Boston towards becoming a zero waste city. 

If you need a TV, AC, or fridge picked up, you'd call us. Or even if you need a yard waste sticker, recycling sticker, or a big blue bin, you'd call us. 

If you think you got missed for trash, you call us too. We answer a lot of questions and respond to complaints. But that is a good thing too, it helps to be able to get the correct info out to someone who otherwise wouldn't have known what they may or may not have done wrong.

What led you to this career? (Side note: how awesome is Chris Osgood? One of the greats.)

Chief is one of a kind. It's great to be a part of his team.

I always wanted to be in a management role somewhere. I wasn't sure what that would look like, but I knew that I liked to deal with issues big or small, and that I could try to help and make a difference. Public service comes naturally to me I guess. My favorite part of the job is when I get a call from someone who just needs to be heard and understood. Being able to talk through an issue with someone and know that they have that insight now and the issue most likely won’t happen again makes it all worth it.

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Brian speaking to the age Strong Advisory Council Meeting about the importance of recycling right, composting, and properly storing our trash for collection.

It's funny, I usually ask everyone some variation of that question, and despite how different our journeys have been and our job duties are, that's the common thread. Not only wanting to make an impact on our City as a whole, but wanting to help people on an individual, day-to-day basis. Public servants are my favorite, truly. 

It’s true...and in case you forgot already, no plastic bags in the blue bin!

Oh believe me, I am going to grill you about all of my behaviors.

There’s no such thing as a “typical day” for most City employees, so I’ll ask this instead — what’s on your plate this week?

This week there's a bunch of virtual meetings, we are working on getting some new programs off the ground. So moving towards reaching some short-term goals this coming spring and summer is on the burner right now.

I’m also a type 1 diabetic, not sure if that’s what you mean by “Behind-the Scenes”, but maybe something my colleagues may not know about me. So shout out to any other diabetic public servants out there!!!

That’s exactly what we mean by “Behind-the-Scenes”, Brian. Thank you for sharing that detail of your day-to-day experience. 


“Waste reduction” feels like an enormously broad challenge. Most of us know the basics of separating our recyclables and putting out the correct bin on trash day. But I was thinking this morning about how many different types of waste we produce, what we do with all of it, and the impact on both our environment and our day-to-day lives...that’s a lot of weight to carry (no pun intended). How do you and your team prioritize and manage all that waste reduction entails?

Trash, recycling, and yard waste are the three basic collection services we offer. We are working towards a goal of Zero Waste, so we're going to be looking for more material to add to that list like textiles and food waste, in addition to other materials that may become banned from dumping someday. So that means having a place for everything, besides the trash can. 

Try this...dump your trash out and take a look. You’ll be surprised how much of it doesn't need to be in there. How much is recyclable? Compostable? Reusable? Maybe you (or someone else) could fix something broken you find in there, and then keep using it. 

Our work here in Waste Reduction is to implement and manage the programs that will allow you and all of our residents access to ways to keep things out of the trash. Recycling is good, but it's not the only answer. And if we knew how to change behaviors instantly, we would...but culture shifts take time. One day at a time, we will succeed. Not to put any added pressure on my team and I, but Boston WILL BE a Zero Waste City someday, and a world leader in Waste Reduction.

I love that passion. Yes. 

Not just the residents and Public Works, either. We need all employees from every department in the City to help us with that goal. It's not a Public Works Zero Waste plan, it's the City of Boston plan. We can't do it alone, so let’s go!

Brian you are literally selling me right now. Put me in coach.


Also leads me to my next question. In terms of changing behavior, I’ve always wondered about the role corporate and government actors play in reducing waste versus the role of individual actors. When it comes to behavior and waste management, is it kind of a chicken or the egg sort of situation?

It certainly starts with the manufacturers. You’ll notice packaging for some things is a lot less dense now, and weighs less too. They love to tout that the bottle or whatever item they’re selling uses 33% less plastic...but they sold more of that product. So guess who has to pay to dispose of all of it? 

There is legislation floating around (Product Stewardship / Extended Producer Responsibility, etc.) to hold manufacturers accountable for all that excess waste. And ideally, to help with the cost of disposing of it. 

Also, this is a good opportunity to plug our new textile drop off locations! More coming soon throughout the City. About 7% (14,000 tons) of all our trash annually is clothes and other textiles. And if you read that and said "No way", well...way.

Okay okay okay, I'm gonna sidetrack us for a second now that you mention it. I would say my biggest waste production sin is the absolutely stupid amount of clothing I buy and lose interest in almost immediately. I have, not even joking, bins upon bins of crappy clothing from fast fashion retailers sitting in my attic right now. What would be the most productive way to unload those items? Recycle? Donate? Any specific suggestions? I may drown in my college wardrobe from Forever21 someday.

Ultimately we need a home for all of those products. We need not always try to Recycle first. But perhaps Reduce what we buy, and Reuse or donate what we can. And before we buy, especially online during the holidays, Rethink what we need. Ask yourself,  “Do I need to order 15 different things from 15 different places and get 15 non-recyclable packages sent to me? Or can I do something different today?”

Great point. Reduce, Recycle, Rihanna. Is basically what you're saying, in terms that I can latch on to. 

Sure. And pizza boxes are okay to put in the blue bin, just not the leftover food scraps. 

I love these little tips you’re dropping throughout this conversation. We need to get you a podcast.

If you're reading this and have a smartphone, download our Trash Day app on Google Play or the App Store...pretty cool way of finding out what we do (and what we don't). It can also help you keep track of your neighborhood’s trash and recyclable pickup day.

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"Trash Day" is available for download on Google Play and the App Store.

I love that app. I would forget to put my trash out every single week if not for those reminders. I fully endorse it!

As we approach the holidays, eight months into this dreadful pandemic — what kind of impact is COVID-19 having on our waste production? And what issues are we going to bring upon ourselves with all our holiday shopping and gift giving?

Great question. Trash is still trending higher today than it was a year ago. We saw over 25% increases at certain stages of the pandemic. Why? Well, people have to eat, right? Yes, and now they are home more than ever. The extra meals and snacks at home end up at the curb now. The meal from a community center or school, that trash goes to the curbside home (not the school dumpster), the lunch you used to take to work, now you work from home, so the trash goes to the curb. Lots of take take out going on, which leads to more household trash and recycling. Point is, trash and recycling at the curb has increased because all of the other options of places to put it have decreased. We anticipate these increases to continue until life starts to “normalize” and people return to their regular routines. 

More people are cleaning up more too. Yard waste season this year is going amazingly well. Thanks to everyone who kept their leaves out of the trash! After two more weeks of collection, we will have numbers for 2020 to highlight.

As for gift giving, it needs to be thoughtful, not wasteful. And not just during the pandemic. We need to all think about our waste as something that will affect us long after we stop talking about COVID-19.

It's really interesting to realize the cause and effect of things most of us probably don't consider on a day to day basis.

Don't leave your ornaments on the tree or lights if you want to recycle it as compost material! Sorry, I had to sneak that one in there haha.

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Noted. If you had to choose one or two habits or behaviors we could all adopt from this day forward, which would make the biggest difference? 

Stop bagging recyclables and putting them into the blue bin. Put LOOSE MATERIAL into the bin. 

Brian. You are. Blowing My MIND. I am such an irresponsible human!

Take the styrofoam packaging out of the boxes before you put them in recycling. Styrofoam is the devil.

How about pizza boxes?

You weren't paying attention apparently...check your notes.

HAHAHA. Wait, no. I was testing YOU, BRIAN. And you passed. 

Well thanks, I gotta stay grounded.

Let's wrap up with a couple fun lightning round Qs?


Best style of french fry?

Sweet potato.

Ooh, bold choice. I like it.

Or steak fries.

You lost me with steak fries.

Oh boy, this isn't going to end well. I can tell.

Yeah this question tends to ignite heated arguments between my friends and I.


Colorful or white lights for holiday decorations?


So on brand. Feel free to pass this one too (as I imagine you will) but I can't help myself: if the entire cast of one reality show were to be raptured off the planet, who’s disappearance do you think would have the biggest positive net impact on our environment? My money's on the cast of Real Housewives of New York. Their statement jewelry alone could fill a landfill. 

Hmmm, tough one. There's so much trash TV (pun intended). I can't pick a specific one though.

Fair. Well Brian, thank you so much. This has been really informative, and fun. 

This has been great, I appreciate you guys asking me to “talk trash”, and more importantly spread the work we’re doing and create awareness of new programs to come that will guide us to become a Zero Waste City! 

Thanks again for your time. Call me when you're ready to start your podcast, “Talkin' Trash with Brian Coughlin”. Been meaning to get into the producer game anyway. 

Got a suggestion for our next Behind-the-scenes interview? Let us know!

About the interviewer:

Erin Santhouse joined the City of Boston in 2014 as a scheduler for Mayor Walsh. She is currently a Project Manager for the HR Transformation and the lead content strategist for Be Connected. In lieu of providing further biographical information, she suggests googling “Kelly Kapoor quotes”.

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