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 are now separating 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

Connecticut legislators have been told for years that a key to solving the state’s waste crisis and lowering costs is to get food scraps out of the waste stream going to the platoon of plants burning it to make energy.

Experts told them. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told them. Even some in their own ranks told them. Most of all, local officials told them, beginning with a series of Zoom sessions and virtual meetings in the pandemic winter of 2020-2021.

But when the 2023 legislative session ended earlier this month, money to expand the successful residential food waste diversion pilot project — included in legislation at the start of the session — was nowhere to be found.

This means municipalities that had been begging for help to deal with food waste will now have to pay the price for that legislative failure — literally.

“Municipalities are really on their own unless there is a state policy mandate or program put in place,” said Matt Knickerbocker, town administrator in Wilton, who co-chaired the 2020 effort known as the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM) when he was still first selectman of Bethel.

“It could take another 30 years for that kind of a market to grow organically.”

Also stuck are the handful of companies that have sprung up around the idea of a separate food waste disposal system. Chief among them are the state’s only grid-scale anaerobic digester, Quantum Biopower, that turns food waste and other organics into electricity, and companies like Blue Earth, which has been expanding its food waste pick-up service around the state.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Sam King, owner of Blue Earth. “There was momentum in this direction and an industry built around this and in infrastructure. We were poised to bring Connecticut into — really — the 21st century.”

Towns and cities are asking for leadership, and the legislature isn’t providing it, he said. “The message from state leaders is that they don’t actually care about the waste crisis. It’s incredibly discouraging.”

Residential food waste pick-up in Branford. Residents have to pay for pick-up by Blue Earth or they can bring it to the transfer station for free. Jan Ellen Spiegel

As much as 30% of the commercial feedstock — about 70% of the overall feedstock — Quantum uses is coming from out of state, said Brian Paganini, Quantum’s vice president, an indication that there is plenty more room to accommodate Connecticut’s food waste.

“We get calls from municipal leaders every day and every week saying, ‘We need real solutions.’”

How we got here

The state’s waste problem escalated from looming to a full hand-wringer when the MIRA trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, the state’s largest, shut down nearly a year ago. That sent the cost of dumping waste — known as a tipping fee — higher, as around 860,000 tons of waste, 40% of the state’s total, had to get shipped out of state for disposal in Ohio. Tip fees are calculated mainly by weight but also by mileage.

Municipalities participating in the CCSMM had already come to the conclusion that the logical move was to get the heaviest stuff — food waste — out. Not only is it heavy, accounting for about a quarter of the weight, but it’s also wet and doesn’t burn very well, and there are other useful things you can do with it, such as the energy Quantum provides or making compost.

But doing that entails convincing residents to separate their food scraps from the rest of their trash. Then the municipality has to figure out a way to get rid of it. That can mean a pick-up service or getting residents to bring it somewhere, which requires public information and education. And every last bit of it requires money.

DEEP had provided more than $5.5 million in grants to 19 municipalities and three regional groups for pilot food-scrap diversion programs, and the legislature seemed poised to allocate roughly the same amount of money. Then, at the very last minute, it didn’t.

A budget provision for another $5 million was eliminated, and the provision in the waste bill to set up a funding stream for cities and towns to start food waste operations was also eliminated.

All that remained in the legislation on food waste was a tweak to the existing commercial food waste mandate, which first went on the books in 2012. But it doesn’t take effect for another couple of years, and estimates are it would only reduce waste disposal by about 45,000 tons. DEEP has estimated residential food waste diversion could have reduced the amount of municipal solid waste by about 185,000 tons per year.

“It’s frustrating,” said Katie Dykes, DEEP’s commissioner. “The governor for a while now has been coming back to me after every meeting with a COG (Council of Governments) or a first selectman or CCM (Connecticut Council of Municipalities) — he’s like, ‘The No. 1 thing I’m hearing from mayors and first selectman is that tip fees are up. Their municipal budgets are getting squeezed by the high cost of waste disposal. What are we doing?’”

Dykes said she wasn’t even told that the food waste provision was eliminated.

“As this is all being debated in the Capitol. We’ve been watching the early results from the pilots that are in place, and they’ve confirmed for me that these diversion programs are effective and will work if we are willing to invest in them,” she said.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said that even though the governor’s office supported the two funding sources — the $5 million in the budget and the separate revenue stream for municipalities — the legislature wasn’t on board.

“The agreement at that time was to take out any funding sources and revisit the entirety of the issue next year,” Ritter said. “So the feeling was let’s have a holistic conversation next year as opposed to doing a one-off program again.” 

The legislature did, however, agree to increased payments to the existing waste-to-energy plants for the power they provide.

Food scrap drop off at the Ridgefield transfer station. Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority

The haves

Deep River learned how effective waste diversion programs could be after using a $104,000 DEEP grant to start an organic waste recycling drop-off program Feb. 1, 2023.

In less than five months, the town’s solid waste volume is down 25%, regular recycling — the blue bin material — is up 21%, and the town expects to shave about $30,000 off its solid waste tipping fees that generally run about $115,000 a year. That’s even after Deep River pays for food waste pickup and drop-off that involves driving back and forth across the state and pays tip fees that are about to hit a staggering $116 per ton for the rest of the trash.

When asked whether that would have happened without that grant, Deep River First Selectman Angus McDonald said, “Probably not. Towns were doing it, and we were looking into it. But it would not have been as successful as quickly.”

But the pilot is only for a year. Without it, McDonald said, they’d still save money through food waste diversion, but they’ll save less if they have to fund it out of the municipal budget because the legislature didn’t approve more funding.

“To me, that’s just a missed opportunity by the state. They made good progress and just dropped the ball. Really starting back to zero.”

When he was still in Bethel, Knickerbocker started the process to secure grant funding from DEEP for food scrap collection at the town transfer station. It was approved after he left.

In Wilton, which, like Bethel, is part of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority (HRRA), he was able to use grant funding from DEEP to begin a food waste drop-off operation in January. Residents have to get their own collection pail, or they can buy a kit of two buckets — one large caddy and one small one — and an initial bag supply from the town for $20.

“It’s effective. We have several hundred homeowners here in Wilton who have bought the kit and use it regularly,” he said. “It shows that people want to do the right thing. It shows that there is a market for this activity, but to scale it — that is going to require more than just a volunteer effort.”

Jennifer Heaton-Jones, the HRRA’s executive director, said the reason only eight of the 14 towns in her region have food waste drop-off availability is the lack of state money. “Our municipalities don’t have the funding to implement these programs.”

Heaton-Jones has been dogged in seeking grant money for food waste diversion. She was the first to explore food waste pick-up, using funding from DEEP for a food-waste curbside pickup pilot in Bridgewater in 2014.

Since then, she’s managed to secure scarce federal funding as well as a small amount from DEEP to build what’s known as an aerated static pile (ASP) system at the Ridgefield transfer station. It uses solar power to heat food waste, which accelerates its decomposition into compost.

“We would have never implemented it without a grant,” she said.

At the Ridgefield transfer station, solar panels help heat food waste to turn it into compost. The project was funded with grant money. Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority

Her plan is to find funding for another ASP system in Newtown, and maybe a third, and make them available to all HRRA towns. “We will be self-sustainable within our region, sharing our capacity. That’s my vision,” she said.

But right now she can forget about getting money from the state.

That’s the reality any number of other municipalities are also facing.

The have-nots

For the Salisbury/Sharon Transfer Station, the legislature’s inaction is effectively a third strike.

“I still get nothing because I didn’t get anything in the two previous grants,” said Brian Bartram, the transfer station manager.

What he wanted, and said he would have tried for again, was funding to buy a truck and pay for an employee to take food waste from a drop-off he established in May 2021 at the transfer station to a compost facility just across the border in New York. Instead, what he’s had to do is hire Curbside Compost, based in lower Fairfield County, to drive all the way to Salisbury, pick up the waste, and then take it to a compost facility in New Milford.

Food waste hauler Curbside Compost picks up bags from Salisbury to be taken to New Milford, where it will be made into compost. Brian Bartram

With the program originally capped at 120 participants, this meant he was paying seven times as much as the cost to get rid of regular waste — a much, much shorter drive. Since he increased the cap to about 400 households and the regular waste tipping fee also increased, he’s only paying three-and-a-half times as much. But without some outside funding, he can’t increase the program to achieve a greater economy of scale.

“It’s hard to get people to do things if you can’t make an economic justification for something,” he said. “An environmental reason certainly can pull at heartstrings. If you’re talking 15 or 20% more, OK, maybe. But if we’re talking 700% more, that’s a whole different world.”

It’s a similar story in Bristol, made even more frustrating by how close it is to Quantum’s anaerobic digester in Southington. Bristol’s two grant requests — one for a feasibility study, the other to start an organics collection pilot for 830 households —were also turned down.

If the legislature approved more money, Raymond Rogozinski, Bristol’s director of public works, said he would try again.

“We’re looking for grant funding,” he said. “Because when you take the operation to scale, that may be cost savings, but certainly for the pilot program, we do not anticipate overall cost savings.”

Bristol’s tipping fee is comparatively low, about $70 per ton. But Rogozinksi knows it’s only going to go higher.

“We do understand where the market is going, and environmental regulation is happening,” he said. “So we do want to be proactive and explore organics. Just do it through a grant.”

Branford’s new sustainability and compliance manager, Tyler Bowne, inherited a food waste drop-off at the town transfer station and a number of residents opting for paid home pick-up by Blue Earth. Bowne said figuring out a more cost-effective system that doesn’t include a long, expensive drive is the next thing on his list. “It would definitely be helpful if there were grant money,” he said. “What it comes down to really is it’s now on us.”

For the 12 member municipalities of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority, (SCRRRA), the travel cost is even more pronounced and being felt now by the one town — Stonington — using a DEEP grant for a food waste pickup pilot. The pilot is working very well, according to Dave Aldridge, SCRRRA’s executive director.

“The downside is, to actually process the food they collect, they either have to ship it to Rhode Island or all the way to Southington to the anaerobic digester at a great expense.”

Aldridge has been working for three years to site a compost facility in the region and is now looking for a permanent site after a successful pilot at the Stonington transfer station. He’s applied for three federal grants to help complete the project.

Dave Aldridge examines his test batch of food waste compost. Jan Ellen Spiegel

“If there were more funding available from DEEP, we would certainly be applying for it,” Aldridge said. Such funds would be needed for public education, transportation and other public-facing operations.

Asked how frustrating the legislature’s inaction was, Aldridge said, “Very. I don’t know how many adjectives I can throw your way. At a certain point you just start shaking your head. It’s like, how many pilot projects are we going to do before we say ‘OK, let’s actively try to get something done’?”

Now what

For municipalities, it’s now a hunt for outside money. Otherwise they face having to justify spending more of the town budget to start a program, even if they can prove it will save money on trash disposal down the line. The other alternative is to just keep putting food waste in the trash and pay the high tipping fees.

For businesses, it’s time to get creative.

“Blue Earth grew up in a paradigm with no help from the state, and we bootstrapped our way,” said King. “Blue Earth Compost will be fine.”

Randy Hall, an employee at the Quantaum Biopower, separates packed food waste. The facility is the only grid-scale food waste anaerobic digester in Connecticut that turns food waste to renewable energy. “It’s important because food waste is the largest part of the waste stream, and it’s the least recycled,” said Brian Paganini, vice president of Quantum Biopower. Yehyun Kim /

Quantum, however, is already considering a change to part of its model. “We’re going to have to step up and provide solutions directly to municipalities. That’s what it’s going to have to be,” Paganini said without offering details. “For those that are interested in diverting food waste, help them really divert food waste over periods of time and not under pilot scenarios.”

“We’re not going to hold out for a legislative pathway anymore,” he said.

And over at DEEP: “We’re obviously looking under every couch cushion,” Dykes said. “I don’t think that what is coming out of this session truly reflects the set of solutions that I think stakeholders and municipalities really want.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.