The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford. Cloe Poisson

Nearly two years ago, the State of Connecticut rejected a $330 million grant requested by Hartford Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) to keep their aged, failing garbage incinerator operating.

In her July 14, 2020 letter to the President and Board of MIRA, DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes called MIRA’s 2021 annual operation plan “a false choice, and a bad deal for taxpayers across the state, Hartford residents, and the environment.”

This “bad deal” includes the hidden cost of the adversely affected health and well-being of low-income and communities of color who live, work, go to school and play in close proximity to the Hartford MIRA incinerator. When incinerators burn they produce hazardous air pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other toxic gases, and cancer-causing dioxins.

When Commissioner Dykes refused to bail out MIRA, DEEP issued a press release covering the state’s decision in which Gov. Ned Lamont shared his strong opinion against continuing to burn or transfer trash in Hartford, saying “I cannot support sending hundreds of millions of state taxpayer or electric ratepayer dollars to MIRA to attempt to keep a failing decades-old facility running, right here in Hartford where it impacts our vulnerable residents. A permanent trash export operation is also a nonstarter. It’s time for new ideas.”

Innovative ideas and true, practical, sustainable solutions to reduce the flow of waste and to manage its disposal flowed from a gathering of municipal leaders hosted by Commissioner Dykes and kicked off in September that year.

Despite pandemic restrictions on in-person meetings, the Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM) managed to gather virtually, established work groups, and, in an impressively short time, produced a December 2020 Menu of Options.

CCSMM’s options include solid waste reduction and zero waste policies and strategies that may be implemented at the local, state, and regional levels. These true waste management tools include the collection and diversion of food scraps, extended producer responsibility, unit-based pricing, source reduction, and eliminating single-use plastics and expanded polystyrene products.

Today, CCSMM continues to share information and ideas about best practices, even as the coalition welcomes leaders from new towns and cities to its roster.

This thoughtful, collaborative dialogue between municipalities and our state government about solid waste management, and an immediate initiation of the policies in discussion for the past two years, are the authentic way to solve our waste management dilemma. Our future is not limited to the false choices that MIRA presents now, as they cry “Crisis!”

MIRA’s two proposed false solutions are short-sighted, expensive, and polluting. Their first choice is to turn the Hartford incinerator site into a massive regional trash transfer station, and to send our garbage in expensive and polluting hauls to out-of-state landfills and incinerators. Their other proposal is to keep burning garbage in Hartford for another year, while they figure out what to do about their existing municipal contracts.

The concept that waste is a commodity or fuel rather than a problem has not succeeded economically, in terms of human health, or environmentally. Polluting facilities cannot simply be “out of sight, out of mind,” and it is unjust to condone “sacrifice zones,” where communities of color and low-income residents inequitably and disproportionately suffer harm by their proximity to environmental exposures from polluting or overburdened facilities.

After decades, MIRA’s past practices, poor maintenance, aging equipment, and stop-gap planning have finally brought incineration in Hartford to a close. Even so, nearby residents will continue to live with the physical consequences and the legacy of harm from the polluted incinerator emissions that they, their children, and their children’s children have breathed.

Connecticut has a chance now to implement real change and less costly, fairer, and healthier waste management practices; and we must do so, if we are to begin to repair and restore all residents to a more equitable life, better health, and a safer environment. Now it is time for leadership to implement the collaborative research and real solutions forged by CCSMM.

The first step to this fairer and healthier future is to shut down Hartford MIRA for good in July 2022.

Connecticut Zero Waste Coalition and participating members:

BYOCT – Jeanine Behr Getz, Founder
Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice – Sharon Lewis, Executive Director
Energy Justice Network – Mike Ewall, Executive Director
Environment and Human Health, Inc. – Patricia Taylor, Director of the Plastics and Waste Reduction Project
Hope O’Shaughnessy – Putnam resident, CT ZWC member
Martha Kelly – Hartford resident, CCEEJ member
Save the Sound – Alex Rodriguez, Climate Advocate
Sierra Club Connecticut – Susan Eastwood, Chapter Chair
Waste Free Greenwich – Julie DesChamps, Founder