Essex Takes its Cue of Old Saybrook and Starts a Diversion Program for Food Scraps

ESSEX — The truckloads of trash from Essex to the regional incinerator in Hartford have been lighter over the past weeks, as residents have pulled about 1,800 pounds of compostable food scraps out of the waste stream.

Waste has become a key issue for municipal leaders as MIRA, a major collector of trash in the region, tries to figure to transition away from its outmoded incinerator by next summer. Reducing waste — long a concern for environmentalists — could soon have a significant impact on town budgets as MIRA considers the costly alternative of trucking that waste out of state. The amount of waste trucked from Connecticut to out of state landfills already increased nearly five fold between 2013 and 2018, when over 302,000 tons were carted out of state.

In 2020, MIRA burned over 518,000 tons at the South Meadows plant that handles waste from about 70 towns, including from the Essex transfer station, which is a regional hub for MIRA waste collection. 

Taking a cue from Old Saybrook, the Essex Transfer Station now has a separate bin for collecting compostable waste, like food scraps, paper and plants. At home, families can save scraps and uneaten food in a separate bin from other trash, and then bring it to the transfer station.

Blue Earth Compost picks up from the transfer station, and takes the “waste” to the Quantum Biopower anaerobic digester in Southington. The digester composts the material in a sealed, oxygen-free tank. As it breaks down, it releases methane and other gases that are captured and later burned as fuel to generate energy. Left behind is a rich compost that can be used as fertilizer.

Recycling and diversion programs like the one Essex have existed for years, but Abe Hilding-Salorio, community outreach manager for Eastern Connecticut State University’s Sustainable Connecticut program, said municipal leaders have taken a keen interest in the program as the challenges facing MIRA have become more clear.

“I think there’s growing awareness of the importance of it, and then just thinking, well, we’ve got to do something, and what options are actually out there for us to actually manage and address it?” he said.

Sustainable Connecticut is currently offering a 1 to 1 matching grant — paired with local crowdfunding to demonstrate community support — to help towns and organizations set up programs to reduce waste. Already these grants have been given to Greenwich and New Canaan for food scrap collections similar to the programs in Essex and Old Saybrook.

Stamford bought its own industrial aerobic composter, which is expensive but allows the city to quickly compost food scraps that its residents bring in rather than sending them somewhere else, Hilding-Salorio said.

The Coalition for Sustainable Cheshire raised money to give out home composting kits to residents, community groups and community gardens, in an effort to keep waste local.

Peels & Wheels Composting in New Haven collects food scraps directly from homes, schools and businesses and takes them to local farms and gardens to compost.

Old Saybrook started a similar food scrap recycling program this January, and Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman said the Sustainable Essex committee took that idea and ran with it. Sue Abbott, chair of the Sustainable Essex committee, said the town considered other options like composting at the transfer station – similar to what Stonington does now — but the idea proved too expensive.

Eventually, Needleman, who also sits as state senator and co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, expects a separate bin for curbside pickup to become more common. He said the legislature is working to open more opportunities for anaerobic digesters, which would in turn incentivize more programs like the one in Essex.

The legislature is considering 18 bills this session that have to do with anaerobic digesters. Various bills would simplify the approval process for digesters, direct natural gas utilities to buy gas from digesters, loosen some restrictions to promote more digesters on farms, and establish a pilot program for municipalities to separate and compost degradable materials from their waste.

For now, the Essex program relies on people understanding how important it is to remove food from the waste stream, Abbott said. Food alone accounts for more than 20 percent of the waste stream in Connecticut, according to a 2015 study. If you include other compostable materials like paper and plants, more than 30 percent of the waste stream could be diverted to compost or anaerobic digestion. 

To promote more people using the program, the Essex Transfer Station is selling $25 “starter kits” with a 2-gallon pail, a 6-gallon bin and a roll of 25 compostable bags for the bin. There also isn’t a fee to drop off the food waste at the transfer station.

Needleman said he expects at first that mostly dedicated environmentalists will want to take part, but that people will start to see that it’s not that inconvenient to participate and more will join. 

He said he hopes Old Saybrook and Essex will become models for other towns in the region to start these kinds of programs. Sustainable Essex is now talking with Chester and Deep River about setting up programs there, Abbott said, and she thinks a lot more will be participating in the near future.

“Eventually, it’s going to be mandated, but I like the idea of people learning and coming to the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do,” Needleman said.

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