Trash from 100 different towns in Connecticut and some towns in Massachusetts are categorized through machines and employees at All American MRF in Berlin. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

What we throw into the blue bins of Connecticut’s single-stream recycling arrives as a chaotic jumble at All American MRF, a newly automated facility that uses everything from simple screens and magnets to computers, robots and optical scanners to sort 600 tons of paper, plastics, glass and metals every day.

It is the pride of Frank M. Antonacci, one of the third generation of Antonaccis to make a good living off what gets thrown away in a state that no longer has a landfill for municipal solid waste. His family spent $40 million on All American, a high-tech wonder on the same street as an auto junkyard and dog pound.

A business school grad, he is chief operating officer of a vertically integrated family conglomerate that does business as Murphy Road Recycling and USA Hauling, among other entities. His brother Chris, a former Wall Street lawyer, is the conglomerate’s in-house counsel.

Trash is big business and increasingly sophisticated.

“The garbageman learned to read,” Antonacci jokes. They are rarely consulted on waste policy issues, and “it’s maddening, really, that we do so many things in Connecticut that are considered at the front edge of the best practices of managing materials. And we’re asked to present nationwide on how we’re doing things here and bring people into our facilities to see what we’re doing.”

The family also is invested in low-tech: Hundreds of rail cars that depart daily from Hartford, laden with trash bound for Tunnel Hill, a landfill in Ohio. At $150,000 a car, the Antonaccis’ rolling stock is worth about $60 million.

Frank M. Antonacci in a room overlooking the high-tech sorters at All American MRF, his family’s recycling facility. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The exports prevented a crisis when Connecticut lost one-third of its in-state disposal capacity last summer with the permanent closure of the Materials Innovation and Recovery Authority’s waste-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South End. It had a permitted annual capacity of 739,855 tons, and haulers now ship 860,000 tons of waste out of state annually.

Connecticut is left with one similarly sized waste-to-energy plant in Bridgeport and smaller ones in Bristol, Lisbon and Preston. Together, they can handle a maximum of 1.5 million tons. All have been operating for between 26 and 34 years, and officials say the state needs to find the next generation of waste technology.

“We don’t have trash piling up in the streets, thank goodness,” said Katie Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection. “And kudos to the haulers, that they’ve managed to organize these alternate contracts to be able to export in this near term. But I do think we’re at a crisis point.”

Only New Jersey sends more refuse out of state, she said.

Antonacci investments make them both an ally and obstacle to the ambitions of Gov. Ned Lamont and Dykes for increasing recycling and radically overhauling how and where waste is disposed and who should bear the burden for its rising costs. 

Dykes said the legislature needs to answer fundamental questions.

“Is it acceptable for Connecticut to continue indefinitely exporting, at a minimum, 40% of our municipal solid waste out of state and relying on communities farther and farther west of us to be willing to take our garbage?” she said. “Is that acceptable? Is it good policy, good practice for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years?”

Dykes sees All American MRF as an important testament to the commercial viability of recycling, helping her counter suspicions that recycled plastic is worthless, as the town of Voluntown tells its residents online. It now sends plastics away to be incinerated, not recycled.

Antonacci says he gets as much as $1,300 a ton for compacted bales of high grade plastic, such as milk jugs made from HDPE #2, and no less than $50 for lower grades. Ninety percent of what passes through All American has commercial value to domestic or foreign buyers, including ground glass used by a Connecticut company in concrete, he said.

High-density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the plastics with a high resale value. It will be sorted by color and then compacted and baled. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

And All American MRF, which was equipped by Van Dyk Recycling Solutions of Norwalk and sits in the Hartford suburb of Berlin, has the capacity to process 1,000 tons a day, far more than it is currently getting — if the state and municipalities can increase what consumers put in single-stream recycling.

(MRF is an industry term, pronounced “murf,” that stands for materials recovery facility. It is where recycling is sorted and processed for sale. Connecticut has MRFs in Berlin, Shelton, Stamford and Windham, all privately owned by different haulers.)

But, as was evident in interviews last week and public hearing testimony Monday, Antonacci and Dykes are sharply at odds over major elements of House Bill 6664, the administration’s waste and recycling reform bill, and the urgency for passage.

“HB 6664 is an unnecessary rush to dramatically change how Connecticut’s recycling and waste streams are managed,” Antonacci told lawmakers. “It is premature as two legislative groups are currently studying waste management systems.”

Dykes said a bill needs to reach the governor’s desk this year “to regain control of our waste future and our destiny.”

Can compacted and baled for resale at the All American MRF in Berlin. Maxwell House coffee has switched from steel to plastic canisters. Chock Full o’ Nuts touts its “infinitely recyclable” steel containers. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The bill would set deadlines for businesses and communities to remove food scraps from the waste stream, assess a $5 a ton fee on municipalities that send trash out of state and implement a policy to force packaging changes and shift costs for disposal and recycling from municipalities to the makers of consumer goods.

The packaging concept is called EPR, short for “extended producer responsibility.” 

EPR relies on industry “stewardship programs” in which producers fund and sometimes oversee recycling and waste collection of their products. Connecticut has single-industry EPR programs for products that cannot be practically or safely dumped or recycled: paint, electronics, mattresses and propane cylinders. 

Antonacci said those forms of EPR make sense and should be expanded to other items, such as lithium ion batteries that need special facilities to recycle and can cause fire when improperly mixed with trash or single-stream recyclables.

But Antonacci said the bill is written so broadly as to suggest multinational consumer brands could take over Connecticut’s recycling infrastructure, raising a multitude of questions, the most pressing to him being: Would they be compelled to use All American MRF’s brand-new sorting and processing facility?

His brother, Chris, recently told the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments that a broad stewardship program would be “one of the bigger government overreaches that I’ve seen in my legal career. It is basically a state sponsored industry takeover.”

Dykes said those concerns are unfounded, though she conceded that perhaps the language could be tightened.

Commissioner Katie Dykes at an energy committee hearing last month. At right, Rep. Holly Cheeseman. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

A version attempted last year never came to a vote in the Environment Committee, and the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, said he sees little sign of the Lamont administration using the past year to address concerns of municipal leaders, private waste-industry officials and even some environmentalists.

On Monday, his co-chair, Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, told Dykes at the hearing he was eager for her to sit down with the Antonaccis and other waste haulers to clarify their role under EPR. 

“I would like something in the next two weeks,” he said.

“We look forward to participating,” she replied.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.