Bad recycling practices costing state millions
NEW HAVEN >> With the holiday season in full swing, trash cans around the state may be getting more of a workout than usual.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 700 million pounds of turkey were purchased before Thanksgiving, and 35 percent of it will end up in a landfill.
That is according to a report by the Food Tank, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about sustainable eating.
The good news is that the thrown out meat can be composted.
Here in Connecticut, about 40 percent of the solid waste tossed out every year is compostable, organic material, according to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
DEEP has been given the task of coming up with a management plan that will reduce municipal solid waste production in the state by 60 percent in eight years.
That’s roughly 2.3 million tons of trash per year statewide that needs to be diverted to recycling or composting, according to the DEEP.
Not doing so could cost the state $2.5 million more per year if residents continue to produce trash at the same rate of about 3.5 pounds per day, according to DEEP.
Recycling properly could save taxpayers and businesses $75 million in disposal fees annually, according to the DEEP.
DEEP has created and released a comprehensive management strategy targeting this environmental initiative, written into Public Act 14-94 two years ago.
“Stepped up efforts to reduce waste, divert waste, and recycle are critical to controlling the future costs for waste disposal,” said DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee in a release announcing the department’s new strategy.
“The (management plan) outlines realistic steps we will take together to transition our materials management system from a cost driver to an economic driver for our cities and towns, and businesses,” it said.
The management plan looks at ways to improve recycling, increased composting, and calls on municipalities to reduce their waste by 10 percent.
“Essentially, 60 percent of the material that would have otherwise gone into a landfill, would go elsewhere,” said Lee Sawyer, a policy officer for the DEEP. “We’re working with (municipalities) to implement strategies.”
According to DEEP, other components of the plan include:
• Strengthening local waste reduction and recycling programs, including Increased enforcement of existing recycling laws and local ordinances.
• Fast-tracking deployment of new technology that more effectively sort recyclables and recover energy and materials of value from waste, including development and strengthening of state incentives for new technologies that generate electricity from waste such as anaerobic digestion and gasification.
• Greater responsibility and participation by corporations that produce materials in sharing in the cost and development of recycling programs.
A LOCAL LOOK
In the last six months, the city of New Haven has produced more than 286,000 tons of municipal solid waste, according to the Department of Public Works.
Edwin Martinez, the city refuse superintendent, said each of the department’s trucks can collect 10 to 20 tons of solid waste each day on route.
“Our trucks go out five days a week and they are worked hard,” Martinez said.
Each New Haven household is provided with a 95- gallon recycling can and Martinez said that even if people were to start to recycle more, the bins should still be enough for a weekly collection of recycling.
The main problem is that people aren’t recycling correctly, Martinez said, so many materials end up getting sorted out at the plants after collection.
Further, only about 40 percent of the glass collected in statewide recycling bins actually gets recycled because most pieces are contaminated, according to the DEEP’s comprehensive management strategy.
Things that cannot be recycled include film plastic, shredded paper, wood, electronics, bulky items, textiles, diapers, sanitary products, and other organic waste.
Broken glass or glass containers that still have food on them or have been contaminated in transport cannot be recycled, the report notes.
The state pays more than $20 per ton to have contaminated recyclables hauled away from recycling plants.
One problem Milford Public Works Department Director Chris Saley sees in his city is that people are putting recyclables inside a plastic bag to be put into a recycling bin.
Saley suggests residents dump recyclables out of plastic bags and into the container and then reuse the bag for another round of recyclables or for trash because the bag cannot be recycled.
Saley said Milford produces about 21,000 tons of municipal solid waste annually, but only about 4,200 tons of recycling.
Since the city has begun the use of an automated garbage collection program that requires less manpower to collect trash, he said some employees are now free to do community education and outreach campaigns on better waste management.
The department is also looking at potential composting programs and setting up an exchange site for people to swap out gently used item, rather than throwing them away.
“I think the younger generation gets it,” Saley said, but more help is needed in helping many residents understand best waste management practices, particularly in regard to recycling.
One incentive to reduce waste that towns and cities might consider is a “pay as you throw” system that would require residents to pay more if they generate more than a minimum amount of trash, said Sawyer, of DEEP.
But New Haven Public Works Director Jeffrey Pescosolido said that is not something the department is considering. Rather, the department is focusing on education campaigns, Pescosolido said.
Educating children on the importance of recycling can make a big impact, he said, because they will bring what they learn home and talk to their parents.
Household members need to know that containers with food on or in them will be sorted out at a recycling plant and cannot be saved, he said.
But both Pescosolido and Martinez recognized a number of obstacles that stand in the way of reaching the trash reduction goals in the next eight years, namely, the shifting population in the city and other, higher priorities for low-income residents.
The New Haven Department of Public Works provides compost bins for all city residents at the department offices at 34 Middletown Ave. The offices also have materials that explain how to recycle correctly.
While the waste reduction goals for Connecticut are based off of fiscal 2005 waste production numbers for the state, which is about 3.8 million tons, data for the New Haven fiscal 2005 was not available.
A CHANGE IN BEHAVIOR
When people throw stuff away, it’s out of sight and out of mind, said Krysia Solheim, of Viosimo, a sustainability consulting firm working with the city to help develop a new climate and sustainability framework.
“We need to connect more to things people care about,” she said.
Developing such a connection means educating people about how throwing away so much trash can make an impacts on their health or harm their environment, she said.
As most of Connecticut’s trash is burned in incinerators, that can hurt air quality, she said, adding that trash buildup in public spaces can lead to waste getting into storm drains and ultimately washed out to Long Island Sound.
The DEEP reports that 87 percent of the state’s municipal solid waste is brought to five trash-to-energy plants to be burned.
The state has one working landfill, the Windsor-Bloomfield Sanitary Landfill. A second landfill, in Hartford, officially closed last year.
“Unfortunately, it’s a behavioral change and getting people more aware of the impacts,” she said. “It’s really hard. People are comfortable with the way they do things.”
But reducing waste in the cities means more than just recycling correctly, she said.
The focus should also be on re-use, she said, and that can be as simple as no longer buying cases of water bottles for your home, buying canvas shopping bags, and bringing containers for leftovers at a restaurant, instead of using a take-out container from the restaurant.
OTHER USES FOR FOOD
The entire focus of waste reduction is not on municipalities, Sawyer said, and the state is also working with large-scale food producers to develop ways to compost or donate food.
“The first step is getting these large waste generators to compost,” he said.
DEEP reports that almost 520,000 tons of food waste is generated in the state every year, much of which could be saved and donated to needy families or composted.
The department recently announced federal funding available to help Connecticut businesses in efforts to donate usable food or compost expired food, in the form of about $100,000 in combined funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the release, DEEP also pointed out that, according to the Connecticut Food Bank, nearly 500,000 people in the state, including “more than 140,000 children, do not have consistent access to adequate amounts of food year-around.”
KUDOS FROM SENATOR
“Food waste is a major component of our waste stream, and the sad truth is much of this food is tossed when it is perfectly good to eat and safe to consume,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a recent release from DEEP about the funding.
“I applaud this new federal, state and local partnership to divert healthy food from landfills — helping feed the hungry, protect the environment, and save consumers and businesses money,” Blumenthal said.
“I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Senate to advance the Food Recovery Act-comprehensive, common sense legislation to reduce food waste, hunger and environmental harm.”