Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 3, 2022. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2022” stories here.
If there is such a thing as a momentous year in trash collection, 2022 could be one. It might have to be.
“We are at a crossroads in Connecticut now,” said Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes, whose agency oversees solid waste management.
First, the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South Meadows will close. By late summer, and for the first time in four decades, trucks won’t be delivering trash to the hulking pile of brick, smokestack and steel that evokes the Industrial Revolution.
“The chain will be across the road by Sept. 1,” said Thomas D. Kirk, president and CEO of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, or MIRA, which superintends the facility. It means that hundreds of thousands of tons of Connecticut waste will be shipped to landfills in other states.
No one is happy with this result, seeing it as irresponsible, expensive and stressful to the environment.
However, 20 miles down I-91, a solution may be in the works. Hundreds of Meriden residents are separating their food scraps from other trash so the organic waste can be turned into biogas and fertilizer. It’s a state-funded, four-month pilot program that, if successful, could be replicated in other communities, significantly reducing the stream of waste.
Finally, a bill before the General Assembly, which was passed by the Senate last week, would create a task force to “study and make recommendations for short-term and long-term solutions to the trash problem.”
The key would be the long-term solution. Several MIRA board members, including chairman Don Stein, have called for a stronger state role in solid waste management.
There are models to choose from, and “all should be on the table,” said Laura Francis, first selectman of Durham and co-chair of the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management, a partnership of DEEP and some 90 towns exploring ways to solve what Dykes, Stein and others have called a crisis in solid waste.
Francis said she is encouraged that the often-ignored issue is finally getting the attention of legislators, town officials and some others.
The trash plant
The question surrounding the aging MIRA trash-to-energy plant in Hartford was not if it would close, but when.
It was a coal-burning power plant converted to a trash-to-energy facility in the 1980s. This was a time when almost every municipality had a town dump that was likely releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, polluting groundwater and playing host to an army of vermin.
Turning trash into electricity was seen as a vast improvement, and six trash-to-energy plants were built (four will remain after South Meadows closes; all are more than 30 years old).
The South Meadows plant originally served 70 towns, a number that dwindled to about 50 by 2012. By that point, it was becoming clear that the plant was in dire need of renovation and upgrade. It broke down several times, and efforts to rebuild it fell through. MIRA went to the state in 2020 with a request for $330 million to refurbish the plant. When the state turned down the request, MIRA’s board voted in late 2020 to close the plant by June 30 of this year.
But MIRA still had 48 towns under contract, so they had to make arrangements to have their garbage hauled to landfills in upstate New York, Pennsylvania or Ohio. An initial idea was to turn the South Meadows plant into a transfer station, where waste would be transferred from local collector to interstate haulers. Another was to keep the plant in operation for another year.
Neither concept was terribly popular with DEEP or Hartford city officials, but it appears neither will come to pass. MIRA’s contracts with towns allow the towns to opt out once a year, in the month of March. By early April, 28 towns responsible for about 80 percent of the tonnage had opted out and made their own arrangements with private haulers.
Thus relieved of much of its burden, MIRA will not have to turn the South Meadows into a transfer station, or keep the plant running past the summer, and will also be able to close one of its three existing regional transfer stations, the Watertown facility.
A small amount of waste from the Essex transfer station will be sent to the Covanta trash-to-energy plant in Preston. A company spokesman said Covanta created room for about 40,000 tons a year by moving some existing haulers to facilities in Massachusetts. Still, most of the Connecticut waste is going to end up in out-of-state landfills.
Connecticut produces almost 2.4 million tons of trash a year, of which about 1.4 million are managed by the in-state incinerators. That means almost a million tons must be shipped to out of state landfills. Dykes said the immediate goal is to reduce that number to the point where the state is self-sufficient, managing its own waste, a goal of the state’s 2016 waste management plan.
The Sustainable Materials Management coalition is trying to reach self-sufficiency by significantly reducing the amount of material going into the waste stream. To that end, the coalition has working groups studying unit-based pricing (pay-as-you-throw), improved recycling, food scraps/organics diversion and extended producer responsibility, a notion that producers of materials should share the responsibility of disposing of them.
DEEP also made grant money available to towns to pursue those goals. Meriden was the first grantee.
The Meriden pilot project is based on a European model called “co-collection.” About 1,000 households — customers on a route of the waste hauler HQ Dumpsters, a partner in the program — were provided with color-coded bags. The idea is for residents to put their trash in the orange bag and their food scraps in the green bag, and then put both bags in the same collection cart, hence co-collection.
The bags are separated after collection, with the food scraps going to a firm called Quantum Biopower in Southington, where they are transformed by anaerobic digestion into biogas for energy and then composted for use as nutrient-rich fertilizer. Anaerobic digestion breaks down organic material in the absence of oxygen, creating biogas.
Three months into the program, it has achieved a participation rate of about 50%, said Kristen Brown of the national consulting firm WasteZero, which is monitoring the Meriden project.
The number, she said, is “super-encouraging,” because with further consumer education and implementation of full unit-based pricing, known as pay-as-you-throw, to all of its households, the city could get 70% of the waste out of the system.
Given that the state’s current level of recycling only removes 30-35% of waste, is it possible to double that?
Consider: 30-35% of the waste stream is made up of organics, mostly food waste. If that is diverted to an anaerobic digester, there’s 65-70% left. Pay-as-you-throw can remove 45-55% of what is left, according to Brown’s data. So, 70% of the trash goes elsewhere. She said Brattleboro, Vt., and some other New England towns have reached the 70% goal.
Pay-as-you-throw means customers pay for the trash they discard, just as they pay for the water or electricity they use, but not for the recycled or composted materials. The idea is to encourage less trash and more recycling, reuse, donations or other means of lessening trash volume.
Pay-as-you-throw has been a hard sell in Connecticut; only a handful of communities have formally adopted it. But it’s been quite popular in the rest of New England, with some 550 communities on board, Brown said, part of 6,000 across the country. Connecticut produces 740 pounds per capita of municipal solid waste per year, about the national average. In Stonington, which has the state’s most aggressive pay-as-you-throw program, the number is 389 pounds.
Some New England cities with unit-based pricing programs are doing better. Residents of Worcester, Mass., the region’s second largest city, produce 324 pounds of trash per capita, and each citizen of Portland, Maine, puts only 286 pounds of garbage into the waste stream.
Connecticut may soon see more unit-pricing programs. The state made $5 million in grant money available this year for towns to create food scrap collection or unit-pricing programs, and two dozen communities have applied for funds.
The state had made progress over the past 30 years in reducing its waste stream, with such measures as the bottle bill, single stream recycling and recycling of paint, mattresses and electronics. The latter is an example of “extended producer responsibility,” an effort to get manufacturers to take some responsibility for the end life of their products. Officials are trying to extend the concept to tires and gas cylinders.
There are several advantages to reuse and recycling. Keeping food waste out of landfills limits greenhouse gas production. Recycling allows a consumer to get full use of a product or material and reduces the need, and attendant pollution, of extracting raw materials for new products. And in Connecticut’s case, it can save money. It is less expensive to ship a ton of organic waste from Meriden to Southington than to Southern Ohio.
Dykes said her goal is to find alternatives such as anaerobic digestion and “scale them up” so they are available to all state residents. She said the state can play a role, perhaps by guaranteeing to buy electricity from digestion plants, as an incentive to build more of them. She said she receives regular inquiries from developers who want to bring innovative solutions to the state (some have). She said she recently met with a firm that hopes to introduce electric-powered trash collection trucks.
What happens after that likely will be determined by the task force, assuming the bill authorizing its creation wins House approval before the session ends Wednesday night.
For one thing, it must determine the fate of MIRA, the agency that’s been running the trash-to-energy plant. MIRA still has work to do. The agency has to decommission the plant, which includes removing the environmental hazards. This could take “many months if not a year,” Kirk said. MIRA is also responsible for four jet turbines on the site, backup sources of energy for peak periods of demand, through May 2023.
Its future after that is up in the air.
“You wouldn’t think you’d need a quasi-public agency to run two transfer stations,” said Tom Swarr, a MIRA board member and retired United Technologies engineer who lives in Hartford.
“I’d be surprised to see MIRA still here in its present form in five years,” said State Sen. Norm Needleman, Senate chair of the Energy and Technology Committee and also first selectman of Essex. MIRA was a public option — towns could join MIRA instead of making their own arrangements. As a nonprofit, it had a stabilizing effect on costs and was a successful example of regional service sharing, MIRA chairman Stein has said.
One question the task force must face is whether there should be a public option going forward, Needleman said.
If so, should MIRA be that option? As Brown observed, the agency does have “innovation” in its title. Though it has been tied to the trash-to-energy model for a long time, it could at least theoretically pivot to newer technologies or programs.
Another question concerns residue. Even deploying every available tool to reduce waste, there will still be some left over. Should it be burned? Environmentalists oppose trash burning, believing it adds to air pollution and pulmonary illness. Advocates such as Quirk believe modern technology can clean emissions to a point where they don’t pose a health risk (there is a very modern trash-to-energy plant in Copenhagen, Denmark, with a 1,500-foot artificial ski slope on it).
Dykes agreed that emission scrubbing is moving in the right direction but said the location of the Hartford plant near the highways — transportation is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gases — has created a cumulative health risk for nearby residents.
Needleman said he’d be OK with a modern burn plant, as long as it burned “as little as possible.”
The major challenge facing the task force will be the long-term structure. DEEP has a strong regulatory and advisory role but doesn’t run the program. MIRA chairman Stein, who also is the first selectman of Barkhamsted, believes the state has to step up.
In testimony on March 8 supporting the task force bill, Stein and MIRA co-chair Jim Hayden, former first selectman of East Granby, said solutions based on “a voluntary participation of towns are necessarily impractical, ineffective and inefficient. A statewide approach encompassing each of the 169 towns is required.”
Without “regulation or financial incentive to compel participation and/or public financial subsidy, optimum technologies for managing the entirety of our State’s waste will not be implemented,” they said. Economic considerations will drive towns to the least expensive option, which currently is to transport to “rural mega landfills” in distant states.
The veteran officials put in a plug for “public ownership, operation and control of disposal capacity,” which they said has a “myriad of practical, legal and economic benefits and can provide competitive balance and efficiencies.”
If the state were to take a larger role, what form might it take?
One possibility would be a statewide authority to manage solid waste, as Delaware has. Delaware uses large “modern” landfills, one in each of the state’s three counties, which are lined and capture greenhouse gases. The state has no trash-to-energy plants, does not ship any waste out of state nor allow any to be shipped in, and has achieved a recycling rate of 44%, said spokesman Mike Parkowski.
Another model might be a public utility, such as that used by the city of San Francisco, where an employee-owned company called Recology runs one of the most aggressive recycling programs in the country, achieving a rate of more than 50%. This is aided by a state law that requires businesses and residents to separate organics for composting.
Trash disposal is not something many people think about — “It’s something they expect government to do,” said former MIRA board member John Adams last year. But residents have a role. They can reuse containers, not use plastic bags, or not buy products with excessive plastic wrap, said Francis.
Jim Therrien works at the Old Saybrook transfer station, and he’s been carrying on a quiet crusade for proper recycling. Therrien regularly posts recycling tips on a community Facebook page and has done a local access television show on the subject. He sees people trying to recycle the wrong things, such as plastic bags or shredded paper, and is trying to get them not to.
He has solutions for two of the more difficult recycling challenges, peanut butter jars and pizza boxes.
A peanut butter jar still coated with the product is contaminated and should not be recycled. But clean it with a spatula and put it in the dishwasher, and it is good to go. If the bottom of a pizza box is contaminated with grease, tear it off and put it in the trash, and recycle the rest of the box.
Asked in a recent interview what the strangest thing someone tried to recycle, he said: “A bowling ball.”
“Duckpin or ten pin?”
“Ten pin — the big one.”