Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 22, 2022. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2022” stories here.
The 10-foot-high pile of what looks like dirt at the back of a lot at the Stonington transfer station doesn’t seem much different from any of the other piles nearby.
But it is.
And to Dave Aldridge and John Phetteplace, it is the future for how to deal with waste in Connecticut.
“Oh, this is wonderful stuff,” Aldridge says, taking a handful of compost made from food waste — 25 tons of it to be precise, including seven tons of potatoes rejected by Frito-Lay and at least one whole, out-of-date roasting chicken.
Aldridge, who is the executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority (SCRRRA), a 12-municipality regional waste consortium, and Phetteplace, the director of solid waste in Stonington — which is one of the 12 — believe that compost pile is the linchpin to addressing Connecticut’s waste disposal crisis.
And there are a whole bunch of other communities who agree with them.
Getting food waste — more euphemistically, organics — out of the waste stream won’t solve the state’s waste disposal problems, but it’s widely recognized those problems won’t be solved without doing that.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has its hopes pinned on a small, four-month pilot project in Meriden in which trash haulers are picking up two bags at once — one with food scraps residents have separated from the non-recyclable trash in the other bag. And shortly, DEEP will be awarding Sustainable Materials Management (SSM) grants from a pot of $5 million for more pilot projects for which there are more than two dozen applicants.
There have been a number of other efforts like SCRRRA’s and Meriden’s around the state. Much of the interest followed DEEP’s creation of the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM) initiative that pulled together dozens of municipalities in late 2020 to figure out waste strategies as it became clear the MIRA trash-to-energy plant in Hartford was going to close. CCSMM produced a comprehensive set of recommendations in early 2021.
In reality, many communities and waste operations have been at this for years — some for decades — trying to deal with waste broadly, and that usually has meant food waste specifically. But they have faced an absence of state policy or policy that has been ineffective and little-to-no coordination. In the end, most efforts have been left to the ingenuity of their creators, sometimes duplicating what others were doing.
Aldridge began his food waste effort in 2019, and like others around the state, including DEEP itself, had to go out of state — in his case to New York, Massachusetts and even the Pacific Northwest — to get the expertise, and even the money, to get his pilot project up and running. DEEP has contracted with out-of-state consultants WasteZero in North Carolina and the Center for EcoTechnology in western Massachusetts.
It took Aldridge nearly four times as long to get the permits from DEEP to start the pilot as it did to actually run it, which took 10 weeks. Robert Isner, director of DEEP’s waste engineering and enforcement division, said permitting is being streamlined.
After all that, Aldridge considers the pilot to have been a success and now is nearing a deal for a permanent compost site within the SCRRRA region that all 12 towns can use. He hopes it will remove enough material from the waste stream going to the trash-to-energy plant in Lisbon that SCRRRA uses to free up space for trash displaced by MIRA’s shutdown. Long-term, it will save money across the board, though there may be short-term costs associated with food waste collection broadly.
While DEEP gets credit for focusing on the waste problem now, many think it should have been done years earlier and that this next round of pilot projects represents baby steps when giant steps, and lots of them, are needed.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” Phetteplace said, “that we would keep funding pilot programs that looked like the last time. Let’s do the things that are going to matter.”
And more than a few believe there needs to be comprehensive statewide leadership and even mandates for handling waste.
DEEP is not among them.
“I think it really comes down to municipal governance. Oftentimes, municipalities don’t want the state to assert what they should be doing,” Isner said. “What may work in one town may not be the preferred method in other towns.”
Which is how it is now. Trash handling is regulated by municipalities — sometimes with more than one system in place — using hundreds of haulers around the state. The cost is often embedded in municipal taxes so residents mistakenly think trash is picked up for free. In places where residents need to hire a hauler, they usually pay a flat rate, so there’s no incentive to throw away less.
And 25% to 30% of it is food waste.
Focus on food waste
Food waste is heavy, so in an industry in which the more something weighs, the more you’ll have to pay to get rid of it — it runs up the cost. It’s wet, so it doesn’t burn well in the trash-to-energy plants the state prefers; there will still be four even after MIRA closes in July. And there are other beneficial uses for non-donatable food waste.
Compost is a big one — a saleable, useful product — possibly more so now that manufactured fertilizer is in short supply due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; both were major suppliers. Food waste can also be used to create electricity or so-called renewable natural gas via the non-burning process of anaerobic digestion. There are fewer than a handful of farm-based digesters in the state, which principally use manure from animals, but they also use crops. Under recent rules changes DEEP allows them to use more off-site food waste than they used to.
There is only one large commercial grid-scale digester: Quantum BioPower in Southington. There are no plans for more at the moment. Three earlier ones had been fully permitted by the state but weren’t built.
The issues that held them up varied. But the core issue is that Connecticut doesn’t have the support structures in place for food waste processing to ensure another Quantum can get financed and built. Quantum itself is only getting about three-quarters of the 40,000 tons of food waste it could handle every year.
The CCSMM food waste working group was very clear about what future Quantums and the whole idea of food waste handling need: statewide policy — possibly even mandates to remove food waste — and infrastructure.
But there is a battle underway over which comes first.
Brian Paganini, Quantum’s vice president, doesn’t quite agree on mandates. “Without strong enforcement or without strong incentives, these diversion mandates are simply very bold recommendations,” he said.
What he does want is an update to the state’s solid waste management plan, last done in 2016.
“We have to have a consolidated approach,” he said. Otherwise, “what you’re going to get is a lot of different ideas, a lot of different programs, a lot of different thoughts on processes. And those processes may or may not work.”
And that makes it hard for Quantum to have a reliable feedstock, without which Quantum can’t get the financing to build another anaerobic digester — in other words: infrastructure.
“We would love to build more capacity for digestion in the state of Connecticut. But the big question is for us how do we convince our partners and our investors to invest in high capital technology, when even we are not sure where that next tranche of food waste is going to come from?”
So what’s first? The infrastructure so there’s somewhere to bring the food waste, or the food waste mandate and collection that makes building any kind of processing operation worthwhile?
“I see it as a bit of a nothing burger, to be honest,” said Sam King, one of the founders of Blue Earth Compost, an 8-year-old subscription food scrap collection service. “I don’t think that we need to do one in order to do the other.
“We’ve seen, I would say, next to no movement from any kind of policy level or anything like that to try and make these things happen. And yet my company is able to divert millions of pounds of food scraps per year. Just imagine if we had been helped in this process; we had been able to get funding from DEEP.”
Most of Blue Earth’s collections wind up at Quantum, but King has begun focusing on smaller transfer station compost programs like the one SCRRRA is planning. “Instead of working with a massive public facility that we’d have to drive 40 or 50 miles to get to, we’re going to do pilot programs where we pick up from homes in a town and then process it inside of that town,” he said. It’s low tech, low cost, feasible, sustainable and scalable — maybe just adding food waste to existing leaf compost piles.
Branford is one town going after a grant to do that. Blue Earth ran a free food-waste pickup pilot that had a lot of takers until it came time to end the “free” part; two-thirds of the participants dropped out. The 17-member Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments is among several COGs trying to pool resources much the way SCRRA is.
The variety of programs underscores that structuring a food waste program is still a challenge. Phetteplace is pretty sure he has the first part of the solution. It’s something Stonington’s been doing for 30 years, called pay-as-you-throw or unit-based pricing.
Putting the pieces together
Stonington’s version of pay-as-you-throw, along with a few others in the state, is based on the size of the bin. In Stonington, it’s a yellow trash bag that comes in two sizes at two different costs. The less you throw out, the fewer bags you use and the less you have to pay.
So far, food waste is still in Stonington’s bag. Residents now use a pink bag for textiles — a much smaller collection, though Phetteplace said it is larger than expected. He has applied for a $500,000 SSM grant to add a third bag for food waste and collect it the way Meriden is doing, though he hasn’t decided whether the bag will be green or brown.
“I can prove to you that this works,” he said. “What we hope to show is that once we start picking up food every week and everyone’s responding to it, we can cut back our yellow bag collection to every other week.”
He’ll ultimately save money since he’ll be sending less trash to Lisbon. He’ll face a temporary $100,000 annual cost of transporting the food waste to Quantum until SCRRA’s compost facility is running. “The goal here is to be able to have something in region so we can all start food composting programs.”
But the voluntary program in Meriden, with no additional cost to residents, only got about half the planned 1,000 participants. So short of the state requiring pay-as-you-throw systems, as Stonington essentially does, and food waste to be separated from trash, as Stonington wants to, the quandary in Connecticut is figuring how to incentivize municipalities to buy into a least one of them. It’s been a tough sell, especially for pay-as-you-throw.
Aldridge describes public meetings to discuss pay-as-you-throw as having incredible levels of vitriol. “I think it’s going to take some mandates at the state level to really make that go.”
While Stonington has done pay-as-you-throw first, the broader consensus is that food waste separation is best done first. And that circles back to infrastructure.
“There really has been no responsible party in the state specifically tasked with creating infrastructure,” Aldridge said. “And that’s what you need. If you’re going to do anaerobic digestion, if you’re going to do composting, if you’re going to build transfer stations, whatever it is, it’s going to take infrastructure. If you want to pick things up co-mingled and then sort in the location, you need a location to sort and the equipment to do it. We don’t have a way to do that. That’s a big, big problem.”
On the books already
There is one food-waste disposal mandate in Connecticut: a commercial food-waste ban that was ahead of the pack in 2011 when it was enacted.
Commercial operators generating 104 tons or more of food waste a year — that’s two tons a week — and who were within 20 miles of a certified processor had to divert their food waste.
But the mandate came with a ton of caveats, including one that exempted schools. Plus, there were and still are only three commercial composters, all on the state’s borders: New Milford, Danbury and Ellington, 20 miles from very little in Connecticut. When the weight threshold stepped down to 1 ton per week, little changed.
Since then the Quantum facility has been built and activated, but New Haven, much of Fairfield County and the whole southeast part of the state are still more than 20 miles from a processor.
The food waste working group in the CCSMM debated over and over what would be most effective to increase diversion of commercial food waste: building out infrastructure, tightening the mandate or both. But in 2021, the legislature only lowered the threshold to half-a-ton per week. It has had little to no impact.
Greenwich is a glaring case. It’s packed with restaurants, but the nearest processor is about 30 miles away — and in New York to boot — so all its commercial food operations are exempt.
Complicating the situation is that much of the town’s waste reduction efforts are relegated to a volunteer group, Waste Free Greenwich, formed about two years ago by Julie DesChamps. They have set up residential food waste drop-offs at three locations and are just beginning a drive called the Food Matters Challenge to get businesses to deal with food waste, even thought they don’t have to.
CET worked with the group and businesses to spotlight ways of reducing food waste. And DesChamps has gotten a lot of advice from Scarsdale and Rye in New York, as well as Darien.
“It really would be helpful to have some kind of regional coordination,” DesChamps said. “Everybody is working on their own islands. And I think one of the biggest problems is that there is no regional area like a transfer station for food scraps that would cut the cost of hauling.”
More than few people brought up the issue of enforcement: there doesn’t seem to be any.
“Restaurants and large generators know that there’s no enforcement, and there’s no one coming to knock at their door to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t you doing this?’ What’s the incentive?” said Jennifer Heaton-Jones, executive director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority (HRRA).
Heaton-Jones is no stranger to the food waste effort. She’s been working at it since 2013, pioneering a curbside pickup experiment in Bridgewater, one of HRRA’s 14 municipalities. It was successful and popular until the realization that it would cost extra.
Since then she’s been pushing all manner of initiatives to reduce the amount of waste going to the trash-to-energy plant in Bridgeport, which is nearly as big as the Hartford one and, at 35 years old, starting to show its age.
She’s now trying something similar to what SCRRRA has done — local composting that should lower the cost of trash disposal if folks are willing to take food scraps out.
Using a $76,000 grant from the USDA, she’s had a system built at the Ridgefield transfer station, which already accepts food waste drop-off. It will use solar power to run the blowers that help speed up decomposition of the waste. The panels are in; the pad is in. The final permit from DEEP is missing, a process she’d like to see made more user-friendly for towns that lack the expert staff to file the often highly technical paperwork.
She’s also applied for a grant from DEEP to construct a similar compost facility in Newtown and eventually at some of the other transfer stations to cover the whole HRRA region. She’d also like to try co-collection, but with a twist.
She’s requested funding for a project manager to oversee it, whose duties would also include education. And that means in-person, not unlike public meetings Heaton-Jones ran at all the transfer stations last year.
“We can have all the billboards and all the flyers and all the websites and social media information out there that we can, but until you have that face-to-face, one-on-one interaction with the public, I don’t think we train them to want to take action,” she said.
That lack of willing participants is not a problem everywhere.
Out on their own
When Brian Bartram, manager of the Salisbury/Sharon transfer station, decided to run a food scrap drop-off pilot with 120 people, it took “no time at all, days,” to fill up. It costs those residents nothing. The problem for Bartram is that “it’s terrifically expensive” for the food waste hauler he uses, Curbside Compost, to drive all the way up from Fairfield County to his transfer station in the far northwest corner of Connecticut and then haul food waste back down to the composter in New Milford.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Bartram said. “However … you can only afford to do the right thing at a certain price.”
He’s been working with CET to figure out ways to get better economies of scale or find closer locations that can process the food waste. To that end he’ll be increasing the drop off program to 400. The three large prep schools in the area are exempt from the commercial food waste mandate, but he’s hoping to get them to do it anyway. The same goes for the restaurants and other commercial operations in the area, which are well beyond 20 miles from the nearest processing site.
“We knew what we were getting into from the very beginning,” he said, noting that the pilot was only supposed to be five months, but the outcry from residents was so great. “They want to keep doing it.”
When DEEP started sounding the alarm about the looming waste disposal crisis in the state, West Haven paid attention.
“We said to the state, ‘Well, what’s Plan B?’” said Doug Colter, West Haven’s grants coordinator and floodplain manager, who has taken on waste disposal issues. “And essentially Plan B is you’re on your own.”
Also working with CET, he scrounged up around $150,000 in grants, mostly federal, to add food waste to the yard waste compost West Haven has had for several decades. Based on its initial success, Colter is going for a $1.5 million CCSMM grant for two years of co-collection similar to Meriden’s and food waste composting on the city’s 5-acre waste site.
There are questions whether it will work, but his main question remains why he is stuck doing this on his own.
‘We look at cities that are bigger than the state of Connecticut. We look at counties that are bigger than the state of Connecticut. They’re taking this on. And we wonder why, in such a small state, it’s not being done at the state level,” he said. “What the state is doing right is that they’re pushing the conversation. And what the state is doing wrong is expecting us to carry the ball.”
Stamford, also on its own, found a grant that director of recycling and sanitation Dan Colleluori used to buy a composting machine to process residential food waste dropped off at the city’s main transfer station. He’s already had to go to a bigger size, is buying another to place at the Bartlett Arboretum so they can use the compost. and he’s thinking about a third location for restaurant food waste drop-off.
Middletown has had food scrap drop-off for five years. Kim O’Rourke, the city’s recycling coordinator for more than 30 years, is going after a CCSMM grant to begin unit pricing and food waste separation for part of the city.
“We can only do so much. So here we are asking individuals to start thinking about this but we also need government policy and we need businesses to take actions to help us reduce our waste,” said O’Rourke, who called state food waste policy “really not that strong.”
It’s been baby steps, she said. For significant impacts, unit-based pricing and even mandates are what’s needed, she said.
For Sharon Lewis, director of the Connecticut Coalition for Economic and Environmental Justice, the food waste issues she’s dealing with in Hartford’s North End face a different set of challenges, including low-income populations, multiple housing types from single-family to senior citizen complexes and persistent biases.
“We’re trying to destroy the belief that low-income and people of color don’t know how to separate food waste,” she said.
Using a tiny grant, less than $15,000, she’s planning a two-month pilot project this summer for 150 residents or locations. The plan is to figure out the best way to do food waste pick up: a single drop-off point, specific hours that people can bring waste out, how to handle folks who are not mobile, and public education to ensure the models work.
Connecticut’s neighbors provide guidance on how to move forward on food waste disposal. Massachusetts has widespread adoption of pay-as-you-throw, plus a robust commercial food waste ban with the same weight limit as Connecticut but no mileage radius and no exemptions.
Vermont’s lesson is even stronger. Its 2012 food waste ban law was modeled on Connecticut’s 2011 law. But instead of struggling for traction, as of July 1, 2021, food waste disposal is banned in Vermont. Period.
It was a step-down process, and there were some squabbles over how to fund it. But according to Josh Kelly, Vermont’s solid waste program manager, a key component of the legislation was that it also required food waste collection. And that incentivized the infrastructure needed at the more than 100 transfer stations around the state, most of which would have to collect food waste for the first time.
Yes, Vermont is more rural than Connecticut, and Connecticut’s population is six times Vermont’s. But Vermont is nearly twice as large as Connecticut physically. When the food ban law was passed, there were already about 12 food scrap haulers driven mainly by customer demand. There are now more than 45. Food donations have tripled. The state has comprehensive interactive maps that show where food waste is coming from and being collected.
The state, which has a lot of dairy farming, has a history of “cow power” — energy from manure and dairy liquids. But the food waste ban has ramped that up, including one of the largest digesters in New England. It’s at Goodrich Dairy using manure and food waste to produce biogas. It goes into the pipeline, and most of it had been purchased by Middlebury College.
“I think the story for Vermont is that if you put mandates in place that have a time frame to allow infrastructure to develop and you help to support it,” Kelly said, “markets will be created.”
It can be simple things, said Heaton-Jones at HRRA — such as buying food waste collection containers in bulk like she did for her towns.
“It was a lot of work to coordinate as a local municipal agency with very little staff,” she said. “Isn’t this something the state could do? Couldn’t they buy 10,000 containers then distribute them to the towns? Or can we just buy into it and they’re shipped to the individual towns from the vendor? There’s got to be a better way.”
Sam King at Blue Earth said he’d like the state to provide resources, financial and technical. “Something we’ve been missing for many, many years is a little bit of leadership and a little bit of help from our partners in the public sphere.”
Laura Francis, the first selectman of Durham who is also co-chair of the CCSMM, said at this point she doesn’t think dwelling on past mistakes, such as the MIRA plant failure, is productive.
“I’m only looking to the future, and we have sent a very clear message to the governor and to the commissioner and her staff that we cannot do this without their leadership. We cannot do it without the state investing, but, on the other hand, we needed to prove that we are willing to do our part.”
Yes — it’s a crisis, she said. But it’s also a perfect storm.
“So shame on us if we don’t take advantage of, capitalize on that. And that’s the message that we should all be hearing over and over and over again. Don’t let this crisis go to waste.”
And then she laughed. A lot.
“No pun intended.”