MIDDLETOWN — As a lab technician at a water treatment plant, Matt Gotta said he cares deeply about the environment, but calls Middletown’s pay-as-you-throw trash program an inadequate solution.
“To put it bluntly, this policy, we are just putting a climate change bow on a pile of trash,” Gotta told the Common Council on Monday.
Middletown’s new program continues to prompt complaints from residents, who say it’s costly, inequitable and ultimately won’t achieve the desired results.
The program requires residents in the city’s sanitation district, which encompasses the North End, downtown and the area near Wesleyan University, to separate their food scraps from their trash and place them in special color-coded bags that they must purchase from the local grocery store.
But the cost of the bags — between 25 cents and $1.65 per bag — has become a source of contention.
Resident Yuri Branzburg said the program affects what is historically the poorest area of Middletown, while residents in other areas of the city do not have to pay more for their trash disposal.
“The city hasn’t tried to make the program work for residents. They want the residents to work for the program,” Branzburg said. “Everyone keeps talking about what’s fair, and I want to talk about what isn’t fair. The idea that making residents in statistically the poorest parts of the city itemize their trash, pay for special trash bags, and remain obligated to pay into a mandatory district, sanitation district, has nothing to do with fairness.”
Branzburg said, in order to really have a fair system, Middletown should charge a fee to residents living outside the sanitation district as well, and use that money to offer free garbage bags to residents in the sanitation district.
The City Council voted in December to allow residents an additional 90 days of free bags. Majority Leader Eugene Nocera said any additional extension would have to be approved by the Sanitation Commission, since it would cut into their budget. The council has also held off on implementing any ordinance that would create fines for people who fail to comply with the policy.
Resident Jody Demere begged council members not to open that “Pandora’s box.”
“Please don’t do this. Please think carefully about this. You’re going to alienate those of us that are in the sanitation district. You’re going to insult our integrity,” Demere said.
Residents who want to opt out of the program are required to pay the city a $150 yearly fee, another proposal that has angered people who live in the affected area.
Resident Rick Siena referred to the $150 as a fine.
“I’m paying 150 every year, which not many people can afford. But that’s equitable and that’s fair. I don’t get that,” he said.
In December, Middletown Mayor Ben Florshiem told CT Examiner that even if the city did not implement the pay-as-you-throw program, they would need to significantly raise collection fees. He said the cost of trash collection in the district has not increased in 20 years, aided in part by their ability to send the trash to a facility in Lisbon rather than shipping it out of state, as other municipalities have had to do.
But Florsheim noted that beyond decreasing costs for residents, the ultimate goal of the program was to reduce the amount of organic waste being sent into the waste stream.
Krishna Winston, a professor of German languages and literature who works with the College of the Environment at Wesleyan University, criticized residents about their use of the word “hostages” to describe the situation.
“When a society really has a problem, we have to get together and have collective action, and behavioral change is difficult,” Winston said. “It really requires people to stretch and use their imagination, and give the people who are proposing the behavioral change the benefit of the doubt.”
Siena and other residents questioned several other aspects of the program, including the cost of implementing it, the use of an artificial intelligence camera to identify noncompliance, and why the city isn’t saving money by sending the food waste to the Wheelabrator Technologies trash plant that the city contracts with in Lisbon.
Florsheim has previously said that the cost of implementing the program came out of a $350,000 grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Public Works Director Ben Holden said on Monday that the cost of the AI camera would also come out of this grant.
Residents also questioned the decision to use the company Waste Zero for the trash bags, with some individuals claiming the company has donated money to the Democratic Party. Florsheim told CT Examiner on Tuesday that he was confused by this claim, and that residents might be seeing donations made by Waste Zero employees and assuming the donations were being made by the company itself.
Florshiem said the company approached the city as a contractor working with DEEP, and that it remains the only vendor on the state bid list. He said there was a bidding process with the city early on, but that WasteZero was the only bidder. They now have a professional services contract with the city.
“Waste Zero has been a very good partner to us and came very highly recommended after working with other communities with both Democratic and Republican leadership,” Florsheim said.
Kim O’Rourke, the city’s recycling coordinator, told CT Examiner that Waste Zero was a certified B Corp, or a for-profit company focused on making a social impact.
“They’re extremely knowledgeable on these programs. They’ve worked all over the world and all through the country. So they’re really experts in solid waste and waste reduction,” she said.
According to Holden, about 75 percent of the district is currently participating in the program. O’Rourke said the city has tracked how many people were complying based on who had orange bags in their garbage bins.
Holden also said the town had diverted 15,000 pounds of food waste to an anaerobic digester in Southington run by the company Quantum Biopower.
Winston noted that the push to send food scraps to the anaerobic digester rather than the Lisbon facility aimed to convert the materials into renewable energy.
“We do not want to be sending our food scraps to an incinerator because they’re organic matter. They can be used to regenerate the soil and to produce a biogas so we don’t have to use fossil fuels. So, capturing the food waste is an important part of this program,” Winston said.
Quantum Biopower Vice President Brian Paganini said the company collects food scraps from about a half-dozen towns, and produces about 6 million kW hours of electricity per year, which is then sold back to the grid. That energy, he said, is used to power several facilities in Southington — the police station, fire station, municipal building, and parts of the Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“We’re a recycling facility and we’re taking food waste out of the waste stream, which really is the lion’s share of the benefit of a facility like this,” Paganini said.
And O’Rourke said incinerating waste releases pollutants into the atmosphere.
“When you look at the solid waste hierarchy, the last thing you want to do is landfill or incinerate trash. And obviously the first thing you want to do is prevent waste, reduce waste, not create waste, and then reduce, repair, refill, and then recycle,” she said. “And then with food waste, you want to compost or send it to a digester.”
Sanitation district residents plan to hold a meeting on Jan. 6 at 11 a.m. in the Free Center on North Main Street to discuss the waste issue. The new city working group that formed to address the waste program will meet on Jan. 8 at Russell Library.
Florsheim said he plans to have an additional update from Waste Zero and the Public Works Department at the February Common Council meeting.