MIDDLETOWN — Residents likened the city’s new pay-as-you-throw trash program to “Communist China,” a mafia scheme and a “hostage” situation during a Common Council meeting on Monday, criticizing the plan’s cost, inconvenience and potential penalties.
Community members also complained that they were not notified by the city prior to the program’s implementation across the sanitation district — which encompasses downtown, the North End and certain neighborhoods south of Wesleyan University — beginning Nov. 1.
“There was no public hearing at all, nobody knew anything about this. It got thrown on us and it’s a shock factor,” said resident Rick Siena. “We’re hostages in a program that we never asked for.”
But Mayor Ben Florshiem told CT Examiner that Middletown would need to implement the pay-as-you-throw program or significantly raise the fees it charged for garbage collection.
“We are in a situation that is not — and I don’t mean this in the environmental sense of the word — it’s unsustainable in a fiscal sense to continue on the path that we are on,” Florshiem told the Common Council.
The city received a $350,000 grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to expand a pilot program it ran last year. In November, the city began implementing the program across the sanitation district. Residents in the district must place food scraps in green bags and trash in orange bags, both of which are provided by the city. The food scrap bags are sent to Quantum Biopower, an anaerobic digester in Southington, which converts the scraps into methane gas that can then be used as electricity.
Public Works Director Ben Holden told Common Council members on Monday that the goal was to consider trash collection like any other utility, where a resident pays based on usage. He said he expected the new program to reduce waste production by 50 percent.
“We’re really trying to have you think about the trash that you throw away,” Holden said.
But residents strongly disagreed.
Their major complaints centered around the high cost of purchasing the necessary trash bags from the city, and the difficulty in finding them. Green bags cost 25 cents per 4-gallon bag and 50 cents per 8-gallon bag. Orange bags cost 50 cents per 8-gallon bag, $1 per 15-gallon bag or $1.65 per 33-gallon bag.
“The bags — $1.65, not a dollar. $1.65 a bag. You only get five,” Siena said. “I had to stand in line at the Price Cropper’s courtesy counter because you can’t get them in an aisle. They only gave me five. I said, ‘It’s Thanksgiving. Do you think five is going to last us with all these people at my house?’”
Resident Ellen Brennan said she lives on Social Security and can’t afford to pay for city bags, which are purchased through the company Waste Zero.
“Your orange bags don’t fit in my regular everyday trash can. So I have to fill up the white trash can that fit in the can, and then I take the can out with two broken arms and put it into the orange bag and have to drag it out to the curb,” Brennan said. “This has been a very stressful situation.”
Florsheim said this year’s closure of MIRA, the trash plant in southern Hartford, had increased trash collection costs across Connecticut because the waste must now be shipped to out-of-state landfills. Middletown, he said, had been an exception to that increase because it shipped its trash to a different plant in Lisbon, where fees stayed relatively flat over the past 20 years.
“The priority and the prerogative now is to come up with more strategies, additional strategies, to help head off a crisis that is going to cause residents to be paying more for the disposal of waste, just like we’re seeing increases in all the other utility costs that we are paying,” Florsheim said.
Residents in the district will have a $60 disposal cost removed from their trash bill every six months. Kim O’Rourke, the city’s recycling coordinator, told CT Examiner that the total amount of garbage collected across the district annually averaged to about $118 per trash can, or about $60 every six months.
But residents complained that the increased costs unfairly affected one part of the city. And while Holden said the $60 reduction in household trash bills should offset the cost of the bags, residents disagreed.
“Being a father of a newly born infant, thus expanding my household to five members, now I have found myself paying $1 each on these bags. And this is introducing an extensive cost to me that I didn’t previously have. Even with a $60 credit, there’s no way possible to cut down the number of bags. I’ll end up spending $500 to $600 a year on trash,” resident Yuri Branzburg said.
Residents also worried if they would be held responsible for another person placing non-compliant bags or trash in their cans without their knowledge.
“The garbage police don’t have any proof that that white or black garbage is mine, because the garbage cans aren’t tamper proof, and any good Samaritan or any dog walker passing my garbage might toss their dog’s bag in my garbage,” resident Jody Demere said.
Florsheim noted that the city is not able to levy fines against residents that don’t comply with the policy, since the Common Council has not passed the necessary ordinance. Holden said as long as there are some orange trash bags in the cans, people wouldn’t be fined for additional materials.
The grant also includes a part-time consultant who follows garbage trucks and inspects trash barrels to make sure residents are complying.
Residents who want to opt out of the program have to pay for a private garbage collection service, which costs approximately $150 per year. Some residents said it wasn’t really a choice at all.
“The statement [Holden] made that we have the option to participate or not participate and withdraw ourselves from it — it is effectively an impossibility,” resident Yuri Branzburg said.
‘A way to make it extremely fair’
Common Council members brought up their own concerns with the program. Councilman Eugene Nocera asked if it would be possible to either pay the sanitation district the cost of the bags through the city, or if Middletown could pay the cost of hiring a private collector for people who wish to opt out.
Florsheim told CT Examiner it was worth a conversation, but they needed to make sure the city wasn’t pushing the cost back onto the taxpayers.
Councilman Vincent Loffredo requested a comprehensive fiscal analysis for sanitation to understand the cost of the program.
Florsheim also said the city was considering extending the length of time that the bags are provided to residents free of charge, which would have to be voted on by the sanitation committee and Common Council.
Councilwoman Kelly Sweeney asked about the possibility of making the bags available for ordering on Amazon Prime.
Councilman Steven Kovach pointed out that many people living in the North End could be impacted twice, since the cost of sanitation could already be built into their leases, but that they would now also have to purchase bags. Holden said the city asked landlords to contribute either by reducing rents or purchasing bags for their tenants.
City officials noted that 70 percent of people living in the sanitation district are complying, and that the district has collected 8,000 pounds of food scraps in the last month.
Several Connecticut towns already have a pay-as-you throw program. Stonington’s has been in effect since 1990, with its First Selectwoman Danielle Cheesebrough telling CT Examiner that the program had reduced town-produced waste by between 45 and 60 percent.
“I’d say that, overall, we find the program hugely successful,” she said. “If we had more towns doing pay-as-you-throw, we would not be in this solid waste crisis.”
Cheesebrough said residents viewed it as an additional tax at first, but that over time they grew accustomed to the program.
“This is a way to make it extremely fair, where people are paying for what they produce,” she said.