A curious thing about recycling in Connecticut — it’s mandatory. Has been for 20 years. And that doesn’t just mean commercial folks have to recycle, or towns have to take your recycling if you choose to leave it out. The recycling laws in Connecticut mean that everybody, all the time, is required to recycle.

The message hasn’t exactly gotten out.

Stuck at a recycling rate that officials say is less than 30 percent statewide, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this week announced the creation of an 11-member working group that over the next 10 months will look for ways to boost recycling and lower municipal costs to do it.

“It comes down to changing people’s behavior,” said Diane Duva, assistant director in the waste engineering program at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

A key way that’s emerging to do that, and a concept the working group is likely to explore, is placing more responsibility on the customers themselves.

“It should be like another utility,” said John Phetteplace, the solid waste manager for the Town of Stonington. “You pay for your water; you pay for your electricity; you pay for your trash.”

If you want to pay less, he said, generate less trash.

Stonington’s SMART program

Since 1992, that’s exactly what Stonington’s been doing. The concept is volume-based user fees, often referred to a pay-as-you-throw, or more euphemistically Save Money and Reduce Trash – SMART.

Translation: charge people for their volume of trash in the hope that it will give them an incentive to recycle more, thereby throwing away less. The model in Stonington, one of about a dozen communities statewide trying this, is to charge people for specific trash bags the town buys and then resells at a markup. In Stonington, the bright yellow bags with “Stonington” emblazoned on them are $.75 for a 15-gallon bag or $1.50 for a 34-gallon. Some towns offer three sizes. In all cases, the towns take recycling for free.

In general what’s happened is that people — residential and/or commercial, depending on the program — tend to squeeze as much as they can into as few bags as possible by recycling everything eligible. It’s the same concept as lowering your electric bill by turning off lights and turning down air conditioners when you’re not home. It’s a cost you now have control over.

The upshot, Phetteplace said, is that the town’s recycling rate is around 40 percent, though he admits there’s really no “before,” to compare it with.

In Columbia, however, there is.

Hail, Columbia

In an effort to juice up its recycling rate, the town instituted a pay-as-you-throw pilot project from September 2010 through February 2011.

It offered bright orange bags in three sizes to people whose trash and recycling normally went to the town transfer station, which only accepts residential material brought in by individuals (the town has no curbside trash pickup). Commercial trash and any trash picked up by a hauler, which residents can hire and pay for, are not accepted at the transfer station.

During the first four months, recycling rates went from 27 percent to 40 percent compared with the same four months the previous year. The amount of trash dropped from 334 tons in September through December 2009 to 154 tons for the pilot project months of September through December 2010.

While some people may have opted for private hauling or other ways around the program, town Administrator Jonathan Luiz said the station’s two employees reported otherwise.

“The eyewitness account was that they had never seen so much recycling,” Luiz said. “There was all of a sudden a cost for putting recyclables into those orange bags.”

Financially the town also seems to have made out better. Transfer station resident stickers, at $15 a year, bring in about $25,000. Luiz estimates the bags brought in about $24,000 for the six months of the pilot.

Saving money

But there’s another important financial piece. Towns must pay a tipping fee to have their trash taken to a permanent disposal site. The less trash, the less they have to pay. Conversely, towns can sell their recyclables to places that process them. The more recycling, the more they make.

In Stonington, Phetteplace has calculated that from 1995 through 2011, the town avoided more than $5 million in costs by recycling more and generating less trash.

At the Salisbury-Sharon Transfer Station, while not using pay-as-you-throw, manager Brian Bartram has embarked on vigorous recycling marketing. He’s selling lead acid batteries, copper and scrap metal through the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a cooperative in New Hampshire. A private company from Massachusetts, Got Books, is picking up books, records and CDs. Once the station’s contract with the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority ends in November, he will begin marketing bottles, cans, paper and cardboard for better prices than he was receiving.

Duva said there are a number of other hidden savings. The 865,000 tons recycled last year in Connecticut translate to 63 million gallons of gasoline saved by not processing new materials from scratch. The state also estimates that if every community increases recycling from 30 percent to 40 percent, it would produce a collective $35 million in savings in disposal costs.

All parties agree, recycling percentages are somewhat squishy numbers. They’re measured by weight and many factors have shifted: plastic is lighter and glass is less prevalent. As newspaper readership falls, that very heavy paper diminishes. Some communities recycle leaves, others do not. In addition, there is less packaging on products, people compost food, and some communities are slow to adopt updated recycling mandates for recently added items like cereal boxes, office paper and paint.

DEEP maintains an enormous and ever-changing list of what is recyclable. More legislation that could change it again is in the works for the coming legislative session.

Enforcement, Duva said — since everything on the recycling list is required — is difficult, even though the facilities that process trash and recyclables are monitored and inspected.

“That’s why it’s important to have things, not just education, that also send some financial signals,” she said, without endorsing pay-as-you-throw as a preferred solution. “Enforcement is less important if you have that signal.”

There are also ongoing debates on which is more effective — single stream recycling in which a customer just dumps everything together and a company is paid to separate it all, or a system in which the customer separates items, which costs less on the other end.

But the biggest hurdle that remains is people — something Columbia, after its impressive pay-as-you-throw experiment — learned in spades. Put to a town meeting vote on whether to continue the program permanently, it was turned down, 2-1.

Luiz said people didn’t like the bags, their price, doubted the statistics, or just didn’t want to change. While he declined to cite specific numbers, he said rates have “gone down significantly” since the project ended. Once all the statistics are available, it will be up to the board of selectmen to decide what to do.

And even in Stonington, arguably the poster child for trash and recycling systems, Phetteplace has heard the same complaints. “‘I pay my taxes, why should I pay for my garbage,’” he said is common.

“The sense is that this is something my town should take care of for free. You need to try to change people’s mind-set.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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