A Reckoning for Connecticut on Handling Municipal Waste

With the market for recyclables in collapse, infrastructure for incinerating in disrepair, and costs for hauling trash on the rise, towns across Connecticut are facing a reckoning on how to handle municipal waste.

In fiscal year 2015, Essex received $7,920 from the Materials Innovation Recycling Authority (MIRA) for the recyclables collected at the Essex transfer station.

“On October 16, 2019 we received an email from MIRA saying we would not be receiving any rebate this year,” said Kelly Sterner, finance director for the town of Essex. “That’s the third year in a row. It feels like the writing is on the wall. Soon we’ll be paying them to take it away.”

The same is true for all 50 towns – including Old Saybrook – that MIRA serves.

“MIRA has a contract with a company called Republic to take our recyclables for free for two more years, for now at least,” said Carl Fortuna, first selectman in Old Saybrook and new member of MIRA’s board of directors. “Obviously their market to sell recycling has collapsed.”

Just like Essex, Old Saybrook used to receive money from MIRA in return for their recycling, between $30,000 and $40,000 depending on the year, Fortuna said.

“When you start going from a positive to possibly negative $30 per ton of recycling, that is going to start impacting a lot of budgets all over the state of Connecticut,” Fortuna said.

Officials in Essex, Old Saybrook and Old Lyme point to contamination — when non-recyclables, including food and plastic bags are mixed in with recyclables — as the reason recycling has become unprofitable.

“A lot of it is contaminated. You can’t throw any food at all, no grease, no paper from the pizza box into the recycling bin,” Fortuna said. “We put up signs at our transfer stations and started enforcing cleanliness. We are trying to improve upon our contamination percentage in single stream recycling.”  

The problem with single stream

The issue of contamination worsened significantly as towns in Connecticut opted for a single stream recycling, replacing different bins for glass, plastics and paper, with just one bin for all recyclables.

Old Saybrook’s transfer station – where about 40 percent of residents drop off recycling themselves – has partially reintroduced separating recyclables.

“We have separate containers for cardboard, newspapers and magazines and bottles and cans,” Fortuna said. “We have a part-time worker there trying to educate people.”

For towns with roadside pickup, like Old Lyme, there is no person to monitor or educate the public on recycling.

“China stopped taking these recyclables, there is no market for them, and a lot of them are just end up incinerating like the trash,” said Amanda Schoen, the deputy director of communications for the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters. “Single stream led to lot of confusion and then contamination. Single stream was a mistake.”

Many towns are working to provide better education to residents about what can go into the recycling bin, but in Schoen’s view, education can only go so far and at some point manufacturers need to be held accountable.

“Right now, manufacturers just wipe their hands of it after the product is sold. But, do we really need all this packaging? Not everything needs to be disposable,” Schoen said. “We need a better bottle bill to tax manufacturers. Coke and Pepsi opposed any update or reform to the bottle bill because they don’t want to deal with returns.”

Although it is not clear whether the bottle bill will be reintroduced in the coming session, last session the legislation received more legislator support than ever before.

“I’m not sure what will be brought up, but I do know there is a lot of scuttlebutt around needing to address the trash issue and the recycling issue now,” Needleman said.

The hope would be to expand the types of bottles that could be redeemed and the redemption value, Schoen said.

“We need to do things a little differently,” Fortuna said. “We could apply the same concept we have now with mattresses and tires. The supermarkets need to take back things like wine bottles and peanut butter jars. Things need to go back to the producer so they are reused again.”

An aging incinerator

Trash disposal — also handled by MIRA — is a growing concern for the towns. MIRA hauls that trash to a plant in Hartford where it is incinerated. But the cost for hauling trash in Old Saybrook has increased each year from $55 to $75 to $85 a ton. Within the next 18 months, Fortuna expects that cost will grow to $110 per ton.

According to Fortuna, the price increases are driven by the disrepair of the MIRA plant, and a pair of plant turbines which are nearly 50 years old, and need to be replaced. Last year, both broke in November and resulted in several weeks of closure. That led to a buildup of trash, which was hauled out of state to be buried in a landfill.

Fortuna estimated the plant has a life expectancy of about three more years.

“Burying it is 30 years in the wrong direction, trash to energy is really the way to go, but the other four plants in the state are at capacity,” Fortuna said. “It is going to take a lot of leadership from the governor and DEEP and they have a lot on their plates. This is going to be a crisis in two to three years.”