Cody Talento, who works for the city of Meriden, separates bags of trash from bags of food scraps at HQ Dumpsters and Recycling in Southington. The food waste will be taken to an anaerobic digester to be turned into electrical energy and compost. About 1,000 households in the town of Meriden participated in a municipal food recycling pilot program. Experts and advocates say that separating out food will save money and help protect the environment. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public

Earlier this year, about 1,000 households in Meriden received colored bags and a choice: Take a little extra time to use those bags to recycle old food. The initiative was part of an experimental program tracking the feasibility of so-called “organics” recycling in Connecticut.

The idea, which was funded by a state grant of $40,000, is twofold: make food waste recycling easy – residents can toss the colored bags into the same trash bin they already roll out to the curb each week – but also to see how many people would voluntarily opt to do that.

State data show Meriden’s experiment is encouraging but leaves sizable room for growth.

“What we found is after the four month pilot, approximately 24% of the available food scraps were captured,” said Kristen Brown, a vice president at WasteZero, a North Carolina-headquartered company that works with government officials to reduce waste.

WasteZero monitored data for the pilot Meriden project.

State officials are closely watching the results in the Meriden project, which were reported during a recent meeting of the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management.

Getting food out of trash bins is one way to drive down costs in an industry where money largely equates to weight. The heavier the load of trash and the farther it has to travel, the more expensive its disposal.

Recycling old food is one way to make those trash bins lighter.

Federal data show more food reaches landfills and combustion facilities than any other single material in our everyday trash. Connecticut residents throw away more than 500,000 tons of food each year.

“That’s pushing up the cost of managing our waste,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, earlier this year, “which is straining municipal budgets, and it’s increasing our cost of living.”

Green bags full of food scraps sit next to orange bags full of trash after being dropped off at HQ Dumpsters and Recycling in Southington. The load of waste materials is a part of a pilot municipal food waste recycling program in the town of Meriden, where about 1,000 households were given the opportunity to separate their old food from their trash to be transferred to an anaerobic digester and turned into electrical power and compost. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public

Tracking trash bags 

With the imminent closure of a major trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, trash costs — ultimately borne by residents and taxpayers — are only expected to rise in Connecticut.

And now, the Meriden pilot is yielding insights into what may happen when residents have the option to recycle leftover food. By scanning and tracking the colored bags, officials could monitor participation down to the household level. On average, the recycled food waste bags weighed about six pounds.

Overall, Meriden officials estimate that about 13 tons of food scraps were recycled during the four-month pilot. Brown said about 98% of homes returned at least one bag, but she said sustained weekly participation over four months was a greater challenge.

“Most days, it really ranged anywhere from 16% to 65%,” Brown said. “Ranging, I think in the end … a little under 50% participating across the board.”

Brown said some households recycled for the first two weeks and then stopped. There were households that recycled for a couple weeks, did not for a few more weeks, and then started recycling again.

“There were a lot of residents that did want to continue,” Brown said. She added that communication efforts with residents could improve and “‘volun-told’ is really not good enough.”

“This was a volunteer program,” she said. “We did not get all homes participating.”

DEEP’s Dykes said in an emailed statement that she is hopeful the work in Meriden “will help the state gain momentum for scaling up food scrap collection programs.”

She said the state is optimistic that more cities and towns will experiment with food waste recycling in the future to see what works and what doesn’t.

To enable that, Dykes said the DEEP will be funding “similar solutions through the Sustainable Materials Management Grants Program, for which we will be announcing grants within the next several weeks.”