Environmental justice advocates have called for an early shut down of the MIRA trash plant in Hartford and argued out-of- state landfill is a viable alternative. Zero waste is offered as a way to eliminate the need for any incineration. But there is no discussion of practical details on implementing these zero-waste strategies.
Waste reduction and increased source separation are important and necessary elements of any waste management strategy, but they will not eliminate the need for waste disposal, which in Connecticut means some type of thermal treatment to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill to the absolute minimum. We can learn from other countries.
It took 10 years for Wales to increase its waste diversion from 30%, similar to Connecticut, to nearly matching the 66% rate of Germany, which is recognized as the world leader. Germany still disposes of ~560 pounds per person in either landfills or trash incinerators. In Connecticut that would translate to needed disposal capacity of just over 1 million tons per year. Assuming Connecticut was willing to implement the public policies to drive a similar improvement, we would still need some way to manage trash over that interim period. And what if our waste reduction efforts fall short?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
While there is much controversy and no consensus on the journey’s end, any reasonable path from where we are starts with the same first step. We should immediately move forward with investing in advanced mixed waste processing facilities (aka separation) to recover biodegradable organics and potentially recyclable materials.
A survey of commercial systems in use demonstrated their ability to recover materials of adequate quality to be sold into commodity markets. Recovery rates varied from a low of 25 to 40% for film plastics to a high of 90 to 95% for metals. Using these data and assuming a 2015 study is still representative of Connecticut’s waste, ~ 1.2 million tons could be recovered from the 2.3 million tons disposed. This leaves only 1.1 million tons, eliminating the need to replace the MIRA facility. Manufacturers claim the state-of-the- art technology could divert 80 to 95% of the waste from final disposal.
Unfortunately, the revenue from commodity sales does not justify investing in these facilities. We need to reimagine trash as a resource to be mined. There are advanced manufacturing technologies that can transform the recovered waste into higher value fuels, materials, and new products. Separation of the waste into more homogenous streams of paper, plastic, glass, etc. could enable these to be put out to bid to attract private capital to create markets for the recovered materials.
Attracting manufacturers to Connecticut to create a more circular economy could create jobs and grow grand lists. Manufacturing facilities would also be easier to site than another trash incinerator.
None of these technologies can compete with cheap landfill disposal. Nor are they a substitute for waste reduction and source separation, but rather a necessary complement. Our single stream recyclables are typically contaminated with 10 to 15% non- recyclable waste and could be processed on same equipment.
There is need for policy reform to make landfill disposal more difficult and expensive. We need DECD and DEEP to collaborate to attract the secondary manufacturing to upgrade recovered materials. Arguments that landfill disposal is a reasonable alternative to incineration will only make it more difficult for the newly formed Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management to achieve its stated goals of providing a system that is reliable, environmentally sustainable, and with predictable costs.
In the final analysis, we face an ethical question. Do we have a duty to manage our own waste within state borders? It is neither environmentally or socially responsible to just dump our waste on another community or future generations!
Thomas Swarr lives in Hartford.