Connecticut is facing a waste crisis. At least, officials from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) have been saying as much since 2020 when DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes called dwindling waste removal options and increased prices a “silent crisis” in the state.
In 2022, the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments doubled down in an effort to draw further attention to the issue. In a lengthy report, the group stated that regional landfill capacity is expected to decrease 40% by 2030. The closure of one of four waste-to-energy plants in the state in July of last year forced Connecticut to increase the amount of trash hauled out of state to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.
“What’s important about this particular time in Connecticut’s history is that about 30 years ago we made a conscious decision to move away from landfills and make a shift toward waste-to-energy facilities for managing waste that requires disposal rather than recycling,” explains James Albis, Director of Policy and Planning at the Bureau of Materials Management and Compliance Assurance. “For a long time, we were managing virtually 100% of our waste through those waste-to-energy facilities. In recent years that has been declining.”
The Hartford plant closed down because the cost to operate and maintain it was unsustainable. The money the plant was able to make selling electricity generated from burning trash had been falling for some time, while the amount of trash they were processing also fell. Ultimately, it was more cost-effective for the state to shut down the plant than continue supporting its operation.
But that shutdown forced municipalities that had been participating in the waste-to-energy program to find other means and, for most, that has meant hauling trash out of state.
Where Connecticut was once shipping out 17% of its waste, that number has grown to 40%. Transportation costs and other fees make handling trash like this more expensive than in-state disposal, but with nowhere to put it, those who study the process say the solution is to cut back on the amount of trash Connecticut citizens are generating in the first place, bringing it back in line with the state’s capacity to deal with it.
We’re talking about recycling.
Under state law, municipalities must provide a commercial and residential recycling program, and that program must be equivalent to the city or town’s trash collection.
“If our town like Waterbury picks up trash at curbside, we must provide equivalent service, which means recycling at curbside,” explains CJ May, Waterbury’s Refuse and Recycling Coordinator. “We can’t say, oh, we’re gonna pick up your trash at curbside, but if you wanna recycle your paper, you have to bring it to a drop-off location.”
Additionally, state statutes include a hierarchy of waste removal, ranking types of waste removal preferred by the state from most desirable to least. It acts as guidance for municipalities.
Under those statutes, the state follows the old adage: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Topping the list of priorities is source reduction, essentially lowering the amount of waste produced by packaging. Recyclable packaging makes up the majority of what is placed into residential recycling bins, according to Albis, and much of that is made up of paper products like Amazon shipping boxes. Also at issue are food wrappers, which often cannot be recycled due to contamination, and plastic clamshells.
Plastic packaging, in particular, has become a major point of contention for environmentally conscious consumers. Recent reports have detailed how the majority of plastic packaging has little to no market in the recycling stream and ends up in landfills despite consumer efforts.
“We must recognize that plastic has been a godsend for certain aspects of our lives, and we should respect that,” says May, pointing to medical supplies as a major industry that has benefitted from plastics. “But for the vast majority of plastics, there is no way to recycle it. Long term, we should be deciding how much plastics we should be manufacturing.”
“I think an extended producer responsibility for packaging program could help with that problem quite a bit,” argues Albis. “First of all, it would encourage manufacturers to use more recyclable material for their packaging, so that might mean a shift away from plastic to a type of material that’s more readily recyclable.”
“The best way to do that is to be able to manufacture materials that go into a circle, and that they’re continually at the end of their life returning to industry and being used again,” adds May. “That’s the Holy Grail. It’s not easy to do. But we need to be going in that direction.”
The proposed plan is to reduce waste at the source through something called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). It is at the core of one of two bills currently before the Connecticut General Assembly. Under the legislation, manufacturers would be held financially responsible for disposing of/recycling the waste associated with their products. Ultimately, the goal is to incentivize companies to reduce the amount of waste they create.
“We estimate, based on the experience of other jurisdictions that have extended producer responsibility for packaging in Europe and Canada and elsewhere, would increase recycling rates to 75 or 80% and potentially remove up to 190,000 tons per year of material from the waste stream into the recycling stream.”
Opposition to the proposal comes from, perhaps, a surprising source. While some critics have argued that increasing costs to manufacturers would mean higher costs passed on to consumers, the most vocal opponents have been trash haulers. During the public comment period for the bill, owners of hauling companies and recycling plants said EPR would reduce their potential business and lower incentives to expand facilities.
“Passing an EPR for consumer packaging bill will be a shift to an entirely new program, but will not help move Connecticut forward,” said Ryan Cournoyer, a Process Engineer for Van Dyk Recycling Solutions in Norwalk. “Instead, it will create instability and insecurity in the marketplace. I’ve personally seen the situation in Ontario where the stewardship programs have taken years to develop and halted further progress and investment at the municipal level and by MRF operators due to uncertainties for the future.”
Most of those opposing the bill believe that Connecticut’s current recycling system Is not only adequate but ranks among the best in the nation. Cournoyer argued that plants are constantly working to make upgrades and process materials for a profit, actions that would be slowed or halted as the state made the shift to a new EPR system. Those sentiments were echoed in additional testimony.
“Determining that EPR is the solution before determining the cause is putting the cart before the horse,” argued Lew Dubuque, Vice President of the Connecticut Chapter National Waste and Recycling Association in his testimony. “HB6664 is drafted as a wholesale revamping of a system that works. In addition to paying the additional cost at the cash register, CT’s residents will continue to pay the taxes they currently pay for the collection and processing of the recyclables.”
Below source reduction on the state’s hierarchy of waste disposal is reuse, placing an emphasis on reusing materials as much as possible before placing them into either trash or recycling containers. After reuse, though, is recycling itself, diverting as much waste as possible into a cyclical system.
Despite a history spent emphasizing the importance of recycling, Connecticut has never managed to fully meet its goals in that arena. In 2014, the legislature passed a bill calling for a 60% reduction in overall waste by 2024. With only a year to go, that goal has remained out of reach.
“Historically, we have not gotten above 35 to 40%,” says Albis. “So we’re currently not on track to meet that 60% goal by next year.”
But there are major sectors of the waste management industry that can help make up those differences … if residents and businesses can be convinced to participate.
Albis says state leaders estimate around 22% of all trash is made up of compostable food and yard scraps that could be reduced if they were separated at the source – your home. But how do you convince millions of residents to start participating in composting programs? Albis says the key is to make it as easy as possible.
So far, the state legislature has made $10 million in grant funding available to fund pilot programs in 18 municipalities. These programs create source-separated collection through colored bags. One color would be used to collect compostable materials like food scraps and yard waste while another color collects everything else. Both bags could then be thrown together into your trash bin and collected curbside to be separated by bag color at the facility.
“When you compost all these, and when you recycle all these materials, you can cut your trash by about two-thirds,” says May, including in that number an increase in paper recycling as well as organic composting. “In contrast, Connecticut’s probably only diverting about one-third of its waste, and that means we don’t have strong organic programs.”
“When you do take these steps, you can really save some money,” says May. “And it’s not just saving money, it’s diverting these materials away from trash and putting them back into industry, creating jobs and creating materials from our old materials so that we don’t have to chop down more trees. We don’t have to harvest as much minerals. We don’t have to use as much oil and energy. So these are win-wins.”
Ultimately, both May and Albis agree that the future of waste management is making it as easy as possible to divert as much waste as possible.
Failure to address this mounting trash crisis has several anticipated consequences — including increased flooding, growing pollution in waterways, and increases in greenhouse gases and toxic discharge — but for May, top of mind for cities and residents is the cost.
Trash fees in some towns, says May, are going up to more than $100 per ton of trash, which is why those in charge of municipal refuse programs want to divert as much recyclable material as possible from the system.
“Waterbury trash bill has gone up from $2 million, roughly, a year ago, to $3 million a year,” he says. “And if we start experiencing tip fees over a hundred dollars a ton, as we start to send these things to Ohio or Pennsylvania, we might experience $4 million a year. That would be a doubling of Waterbury s trash bill.”
And that, says May, should be enough to convince residents to participate in municipal recycling programs both as they are now and as they change and expand in the future.
“Everybody will be upset if they have to see their municipal budgets go higher and people paying more taxes for trash,” he argues. “But then if you turn around to people and say, well, listen, if you wanna save money, we need to actually pay attention and be a little bit more attentive to composting and recycling, then people have to realize that we can be the solution to our own problem. And that administrative leaders can only take it so far. But those administrative leaders do need to be willing to push for something that’s important.”
For some who want to recycle but don’t, the problem is one of information and understanding. Most materials you consider recyclable (plastic, paper, aluminum, cardboard, etc) can be recycled … in certain circumstances. But not everything with a recycling symbol can go into your residential bucket.
“I think recycling can be confusing for people,” says Albis. “I think if you see a number inside the chasing arrows, you automatically assume that it can be recycled. But first of all, that’s not always the case. And second of all, even if it may be the case, uh, the blue bin might not be the right place for those materials.”
Albis says the state has made efforts to make following these confusing rules easier through a website and smartphone app. But still, many well-meaning residents make mistakes, either by depositing items contaminated by food residue or by attempting to recycle something very specific.
“I think about plastic bags, for example, which in theory can be recycled if they’re separated and aggregated and sent to a processing facility, but they cannot be recycled if you put them in the blue bin,” explains Albis. “And in fact, they might get stuck in machinery at material recovery facilities and cause extra resources to be expended by those facilities to unclog their machinery.”
“They’re people who are wishing to recycle all sorts of things. Oh, I’ll, if I give it to them, they’ll just be able to sort out,” adds May. “And no, we actually can’t. And the plastic bags are the worst thing.”
For those who want to do their part to cut down on trash and keep materials in a cycle of use, it can be complicated, and even those in charge of administering these programs admit that they have only figured out how to simplify the process so much. Reducing the products we use, reusing the ones we have, and recycling and composting at the rates that we need mean conscious decisions and additional, sometimes cumbersome steps.
Still, May believes the mounting crisis is one we can avert.
“We have the technology to make a greener future,” he says. “We really just need to ensure that everybody participates in the programs.”