Those opposing efforts to refurbish the regional waste incinerator in Hartford have promoted landfilling as a viable option within a zero- waste strategy. While I agree the state critically needs visionary leadership on solid waste, relying on landfills is hardly visionary.
There is a reason that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Directorate General for the Environment, and
virtually every environmental agency I know of lists a waste hierarchy with use of a landfill as the disposal method of last choice. Our goal should be depositing zero waste to landfills.
I was dismayed that the failure of the Hartford plant at the end of 2018 was not a sufficient wake-up call to Connecticut leaders. Few realize how close the state came to a public health crisis. The recent CT Viewpoints piece mentioned the “smelly stockpiling of trash” that occurred at the plant, but did not point out that the stockpiling resulted because of insufficient truck capacity to ship all the waste to out-of-state landfills.
The plant was within days of pulling a chain across the scale, halting operations and informing more than 50 Connecticut municipalities that we had no place to take our trash. We have a choice: Do we want to responsibly manage our waste, or would we prefer to see it piled on our streets? We are running out of time.
Visionary leadership will require re-imagining how we handle waste, starting with how we design consumer products, how we sort and collect trash, and only then how we manage treatment and disposal. Waste streams need to be viewed as feedstock for energy or material recovery processes.
Consider waste organics as an example. The current plan was to recover these in Hartford with advanced mechanical and biological treatment technology. However, it makes little sense to ship organics (such as food scraps and yard trimmings) for centralized treatment, since we are basically shipping a lot of water. How can we recover organics in a cost-effective way? Are there distributed technologies for processing organics closer to the waste generators? Do we need different recovery processes for rural communities with agricultural waste and urban communities with more food waste?
Consider lightweight plastic packaging. The mixed plastic waste has limited markets, and MIRA currently recovers about $15 per ton. Recovery is difficult and contamination is high because we commingle materials in “single stream” recycling bins. Some countries collect this waste separately, resulting in a feedstock with greater processing opportunities. Advanced gasification can convert that ton of waste into roughly 120 gallons of diesel fuel, which would generate some $400 of revenue to help subsidize waste disposal.
We can assess various waste streams to determine the most cost-effective systems to protect the value of recovered materials and link to the most efficient and clean treatment technologies.
There are options to a continued reliance on waste-to-energy at the Hartford plant. Europe and Southeast Asia have deployed many advanced technologies, because they simply lack open space for landfills. These technologies have not been used much in the United States because we have relied on low-cost landfilling, making it difficult to finance the capital-intensive alternatives.
No town wants to host a waste facility. Host communities are unfairly burdened with pollution, health impacts and reduced property values. The rest of us have little interest in what happens to our trash, as long as it disappears from the curb on pickup day.
The aged Hartford trash incinerator is a state-wide risk. Ensuring we have adequate capacity to treat our waste should be a concern for all of Connecticut. The MIRA facility helps set the market cap on waste disposal tipping fees. Depending on out-of-state landfills is a risky, short-term solution because these can cut off service at any time. We are leaving a financial debt for future generations to prop up our consumer economy.
I cannot support adding to that an ecological debt buried in landfills. It’s time we accepted responsibility for properly managing our waste and paying the full costs, including health, environmental, and aesthetic impacts on host communities. That will require visionary leadership.
Thomas Swarr of Hartford is an ad hoc member of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA).