High-density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the plastics with a high resale value. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Original reporting by Mark Pazniokas and Tom Condon. Compiled by Gabby DeBenedictis.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of CT Mirror’s Spanish-language news coverage developed in partnership with Identidad Latina Multimedia.

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In July 2022, a major trash-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South Meadows closed after four decades of operation.

Now, in its absence, Connecticut has been shipping 860,000 tons of trash out of state annually. In January, Gov. Ned Lamont and his environmental chief, Katie Dykes, began outlining a long-term policy for disposing of that waste.

Here’s what to know.

The Hartford plant closed after the state turned down a request to fund refurbishments.

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority’s trash-to-energy plant was a coal-burning power plant converted to a trash-to-energy facility in the 1980s. The permit to make the conversion was issued in the 1980s, but the permit to operate was issued in 1994.

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 remain; they range in age from 26 to 34 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 in 2022.

The state has been shipping trash to Pennsylvania and Ohio ever since.

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.

The Hartford MIRA plant had a permitted annual capacity of 739,855 tons, and haulers now ship 860,000 tons of waste out of state annually.

Connecticut trash gets shipped to Keystone Sanitary Landfill in Pennsylvania, a three-plus hour trip by truck from central Connecticut on I-84, and Tunnel Hill Reclamation Landfill in Ohio, served by rail cars that can unload 100 tons of waste every 15 minutes. 

Only New Jersey sends more refuse out of state, said Katie Dykes, Connecticut’s commissioner of energy and environmental protection.

In January, Lamont and Dykes outlined a new approach to disposing CT’s trash.

A proposed new approach would require new disposal facilities and dramatic reductions in how much waste is generated by residents and businesses.

It would have two elements: Reducing the waste stream and siting one or more facilities using technology to be determined.

The proposal would involve an ‘extended producer responsibility program’ for packaging. Simply put, that means pressuring Amazon and other drivers in the American economy to rethink and reduce packaging or take financial responsibility for disposal, a cost likely to be passed on to consumers.

The state also would work to remove food waste from the refuse stream, a demand on consumers and businesses.

The state currently has relatively small-scale demonstration programs on removing food scraps, but it will have to replicate them at a much larger scale to achieve the administration’s goal of waste reduction.

What the administration outlined could take a decade to achieve, but the governor said the challenge is to set a responsible and sustainable course for the decades to follow.

That means assessing the best available technology for disposing of waste, which will include seeking proposals from the private sector.

The former MIRA facility will likely not become a new trash plant.

In announcing the proposed approach, the Lamont administration established it is opposed to placing a new trash plant at the site of the former waste-to-energy plant, which is owned by MIRA.

The governor’s plan is geared to Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin’s hope of the state eventually taking control of the MIRA site to remediate more than a century of environmental abuse and offer it for redevelopment or recreational access to the Connecticut River.

Mark Daley, the president of MIRA, said the quasi-public entity already has spent $28 million on environmental remediation of the site, but much more will be needed.

Finding answers to big questions in Connecticut. CT Mirror Explains is an ongoing effort to distill our wide-ranging reporting on Connecticut topics into a "what you need to know" format.