DEEP RIVER — As costs to transport trash out of town rise, Deep River is considering a “pay-as-you-throw” program in an effort to reduce waste and avoid tax increases.
Under a program proposed by the Sustainable Deep River Committee, residents who dispose of their trash at the town transfer station would be required to buy town-approved trash bags from local stores — $2 for a 33-gallon “family size” bag, $1.30 for a 13-gallon bag, and 95 cents for an 8 gallon bag. Recycling would continue to be free, and low-income residents could contact Town Hall about getting free bags.
A meeting to vote on the proposal is set for 7 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Deep River Town Hall.
Committee Chair Lenore Grunko said the pay-as-you-throw program would encourage residents to keep as much waste out of the trash as possible.
“People would have to purchase bags, and then hopefully that’ll incentivize them to put as little as possible in them by recycling as much as possible,” Grunko said. “Paper, cardboard, food scraps, clothing, textiles and on and on.”
After the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority shut down its Hartford trash-burning plant last year, the state lost about a third of its capacity to handle trash within its own borders — about 740,000 tons per year. Now the state relies on landfills in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where hundreds of thousands of tons of trash are now being shipped.
State officials have deemed it a crisis, and Gov. Ned Lamont and DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes have been pushing extended producer responsibility for manufacturers of packaged goods as a fix. But that plan faced resistance from recyclers and lawmakers in Hartford this year.
DEEP has also pushed food waste diversion programs in over a dozen municipalities, including Deep River. Boosted statewide, the department says it could reduce the waste stream by about 185,000 tons of trash each year.
Pay-as-you-throw programs have also been encouraged as a way to reduce the amount of trash Connecticut ships to landfills.
Deep River is one of the few transfer stations that allows residents to throw their trash out for free, according to Grinko. People are paying for it through their taxes, she said, but they don’t see that cost when they’re throwing trash away.
“This is a real challenge because there’s people who believe it’s their God-given right to be able to throw out whatever they want for as long as they’re alive,” Grunko said. “And they don’t understand why they should have to pay for it.”
Grunko said much of the pushback involves the perception of an added cost, but she argued that people already pay for trash bags and that continually rising waste transportation fees will increase taxes. She also noted the program allows people to pay for their own trash, not for neighbors who may be producing more.
Outgoing Deep River First Selectman Angus McDonald said switching to a pay-as-you-throw model will save the town money, as landfill fees are only going to increase. DEEP said the average cost for municipalities to haul away a ton of trash has increased from $60.90 in 2012 to $102.50 in 2022, and will continue to escalate as more trash is trucked out of state.
The food waste diversion program, started on Feb. 1, has already saved the town thousands of dollars, McDonald said. Last year, Deep River spent about $116,000 on landfill fees. But this year, the town is projecting to save about $30,000 from diverted food scraps, which are instead shipped to the Quantum Biopower anaerobic digester in Southington.
The grant that makes shipping those food scraps free will expire next year, McDonald said, but the town still expects to save $15,000.
Grunko said pay-as-you-throw programs have gained traction across New England, which lacks available space for landfills and few other options for disposing of trash. A 2018 survey of New Hampshire towns found that the 34 towns with pay-as-you-throw programs saw their municipal waste drop by 42 to 54 percent.
According to DEEP, nine towns in Connecticut have a pay-as-you-throw program — Coventry, East Lyme, Groton, Killingly, Mansfield, Portland, Sterling, Stonington and Voluntown.
Stonington has had a pay-as-you-throw model in place alongside its curbside trash pickup services since the 1990s. The town has also joined DEEP’s food waste diversion initiative and started a textile recycling program.
First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough acknowledged there’s an initial negative reaction to the cost of trash bags, but that most concerns are eased after showing data of the program’s success.
Chesebrough said Stonington’s waste per capita is about half the state average, and urged other towns to adopt the pay-as-you-throw program.
But she noted it can be a tough sell for residents.
“It’s hard for a lot of other towns to get that kind of buy-in from residents because there’s that knee-jerk reaction of, ‘Oh, this is another tax,’” Chesebrough said. “But you’re paying for it one way or another.”
Another common criticism from pay-as-you-throw opponents is that the cost will push people to dump their trash illegally, but Chesebrough said that hasn’t been the case in Stonington.
“That’s a concern that people bring up, but nobody with a program has actually seen that as a significant problem,” she said. “Of course there’s always going to be people who find a loophole or a way around it, but in general it’s been so highly successful.”
Before moving to Deep River, Grunko lived in Mansfield, which started its pay-as-you-throw program in 1990. Residents there pay a monthly fee for their curbside roll carts, which are picked up by Willimantic Waste.
Deep River doesn’t have a townwide curbside collection, but residents can contract with private haulers or take trash to the transfer station themselves. Grunko said she believes curbside collection would be cheaper and better for the town, but until that happens, the pay-as-you- throw program would apply to trash that residents take to the transfer station.
“There’s little to no abuse [of the system],” Grunko said. “We never thought about it. I was there when it started, and it was the way they paid for the transfer station. And that’s what it’s about, you can pay for things in your town in different ways.”