Steam billows from a tall stack near the power block facility at the MIRA trash-to-energy facility in Hartford’s South Meadows. Cloe Poisson

When we talk about racial injustice, we must put environmental injustice near the top of the list of concerns. Connecticut’s urban communities of color are burdened with pollution from traffic congestion, aging housing, toxics from manufacturing, and the dumping of the state’s trash to be incinerated in their neighborhoods. Eighty percent of U.S. waste incinerators are located in environmental justice communities. The aging MIRA waste incinerator in Hartford is a prime example.

Susan Eastwood

The May 28 decision to close the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA)  incinerator in Hartford will impact waste management throughout the state; more than 50 towns ship their trash to MIRA. The towns have balked at the cost to renovate the 30-year-old incinerator, $333 million, which would increase fees per ton by 42%. MIRA’s decision comes after repeated breakdowns of the old plant and years of debate over how to go forward. While the state could come up with the funds needed, this would be a huge investment in an outdated, polluting plant and this solution is not supported by Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

While closure of the plant presents a dilemma for Connecticut’s waste management, it is a real opportunity to implement zero waste methods and reduce the amount of waste by up to 90%.

In Connecticut, food waste and other organics make up about 33% of the waste stream. This can be eliminated by diverting organics into composting or anaerobic digestion facilities. Another 40% of trash is paper, plastic, glass, and metal, which can be captured by improved recycling efforts. Further reductions can be made by educating individuals in ways to use less, or disincentivizing with “pay-as-you-throw” policies.

Manufacturers can be influenced to be more responsible with product etewardship laws and public pressure. Our legislature could ban non-recyclables, incentivize recycling, require manufacturers to use less packaging, and find non-toxic alternatives to chemicals like BPA that make products unsafe to recycle. A good start would be to pass the proposed Bottle Bill upgrade which would take up to 400 million bottles out of the waste stream annually, if the bill is amended to include wine and liquor bottles, 60% of the glass tossed.

The remaining trash must be dealt with. Landfills do leak, but newer barriers are much better than in the past. Even trucking trash to out-of-state landfills, while not a palatable solution, is less damaging to the environment than incineration. Incinerators are extremely toxic, emitting gasses like nitrous oxide (NOx), carbon dioxide (CO2),  and ozone depleting CFC-11. The burning process produces dioxin and benzene in both the emissions and the ash. They burn materials that contain highly toxic metals, including cadmium, mercury, and lead, as well as synthetic chemicals, like PFAS, that have many serious health impacts, including cancers and birth defects. The result is a concentration of toxins in the ash.

This toxic ash is trucked across the state, to an ash landfill in Putnam, a low-income community in Northeastern Connecticut. The landfill  is located on the Quinebaug River, which feeds water sources all the way south to New London and Long Island Sound. Every day, truck after truck dumps loads of ash into piles to be covered with tarps until it can be buried. Residents testify that the ash is often blown into neighboring properties and the water. Rather than expanding the dump’s capacity, as currently proposed, we should be planning alternative ways to dispose of our trash.

Less is more, and the most efficient solution is to implement policies to reduce our trash. Now is the time to support zero waste goals and vigorous efforts to achieve them.

Susan Eastwood is chair of the Ashford Clean Energy Task Force.

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