For years Hartford’s MIRA has burned much of the state’s trash, but now its days are numbered.
The waste-processing side of the MIRA trash-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South Meadows. In recent years, an average of 2,500 tons of garbage were dumped and processed daily at MIRA. But when the plant shuts down in the next year or so, all that tonnage will need to go somewhere else.
Quantum Biopower is recycling — or, more specifically, composting — on an industrial scale. The Southington plant takes in all manner of organic waste, including food. The waste is processed by an anaerobic digester, producing biogas that is burned and used for electricity.
Brian Paganini, Vice President of Quantum Biopower, stands next to some of the food that comes into the plant for processing.
Mulch and soil is piled at Quantum Biopower in Southington, CT on March 4, 2022.
Peels & Wheels in New Haven takes a more grassroots approach to composting.
Peels & Wheels employees like Ahna Johnson collect food waste on weekly bicycle rounds and then deposit it at nearby locations for processing.
Connecticut used to handle every last stinking scrap of its own garbage, along with some imported refuse as well, easy as pie. The state was a pioneer in trash-to-energy disposal in the 1980s, when it began phasing out overflowing landfills that polluted and scarred the landscape — none more notoriously than “Mount Trashmore,” the malevolent monstrosity that loomed over Hartford’s North End. (See the sidebar at the end of this article.)
The state legislature passed a bottle bill in 1980, which was upgraded last year, and made recycling mandatory in 1991. Recent legislation has required certain large businesses to be more responsible for disposal costs associated with their operations, such as food waste and product packaging.
Not quite. Today Connecticut exports its solid waste in wholesale lots, shipping it to landfills in New York, Ohio and perhaps even farther soon. When the aging MIRA trash-burning plant in Hartford’s South Meadows shuts down in the near future — originally slated for July 1 but now extended for up to a year after that — the state will be exporting about a third of the 2.5 million tons of the municipal solid waste it generates every year. It already is outsourcing 12 percent of it.
And it could be more than a third. That calculation assumes all goes well: that the 33-year-old MIRA plant doesn’t break down again before it closes, as it did for months in 2018; that the four smaller trash-burning facilities in the state don’t show their considerable age and shut down for repairs; that the rapidly shrinking capacity of out-of-state landfills doesn’t spoil the state’s helter-skelter disposal plans. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) estimates that 50 to 75 percent of the state’s exported trash is being landfilled — the discredited approach of yesteryear.
MIRA stands for Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, although it shuttered its ailing recycling facility in April of last year and farmed out that part of its portfolio. What’s more, burning trash is no longer considered innovative. It sends pollutants into the air, and the ash still has to be buried somewhere. For decades it wound up at Mount Trashmore. In 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont rejected a $330 million funding request from MIRA to fix its ailing facility.
However passé burning trash has become, paying more money each year to truck more garbage more miles to be landfilled isn’t environmentally — or economically — sound either. Clearly what Connecticut has on its hands is a slow-moving train wreck of a crisis, one that has been decades in the making. Virtually everybody agrees with that assessment, including Katie Dykes, commissioner of DEEP, whose job entails cleaning up the mess.
“The big question is how long will we be exporting as much as a third of our municipal solid waste after MIRA closes,” Dykes says. “What we do right now to scale up sustainable alternatives to landfilling and waste-to-energy plants will determine how long we continue to rely on out-of-state sources over the next few years.”
RELATED FROM THE ARCHIVES: The 1980s trash crisis is explored in "Up to Here in Garbage" (July 1987)
So how did Connecticut get into this fetid fix? There is plenty of blame to go around, starting with we the people. How profligate are we? Each Connecticut resident generates about 4½ pounds of solid waste per day, according to the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority. So a family of four produces nearly 3 tons of trash annually (5,480 pounds). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75 percent of our garbage could be recycled, everything from glass, plastics and food scraps to textiles and thin plastic wrap. DEEP estimates, however, that we are recycling or composting a mere 35 percent of our solid waste. We only redeem half of our cans and bottles for the paltry deposit (it’s been a nickel since 1980 but is going to a dime in 2024).
Or take food. Americans toss a remarkable 30 to 40 percent of their grub into the trash can. Because table scraps are wet, they make trash incineration less efficient; they’re also heavy, adding disproportionately to trucking costs and landfill tipping fees.
A 2015 DEEP study found that food accounts for nearly a quarter (22.3 percent) of the state’s garbage. It is the largest single component of our trash, as well as the least recycled — i.e., collected separately and composted into a useful soil enhancer or broken down anaerobically into biogas to generate electricity.
DEEP estimates that only 3 to 4 percent of leftovers are being reused, and much of that in people’s backyard or farm compost bins. There has never been a comprehensive statewide, or even town-wide, plan to separate and collect food scraps curbside, like one that has just been instituted in California. San Franciscans have been recycling food scraps for more than a decade.
Here in Connecticut, one would rightly describe our efforts to improve trash processes as merely exploratory. Two years ago DEEP formed the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM) to explore eco-friendlier and in-state disposal alternatives, and it invited cities and towns to participate. So far 85 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities have signed up to share ideas and learn from what is being done successfully elsewhere to reduce trash volume and disposal costs.
Role models abound: states such as Maine, Massachusetts and California are well ahead of the curve (and Connecticut) in implementing solutions such as unit-based pricing — users pay for the trash they generate, as a consumer would pay for electricity — and diversion of organic matter such as food scraps and yard debris from the solid-waste stream. The 2015 DEEP study found that organic matter makes up a whopping 41 percent of the state’s trash.
Of course, not everyone agrees on the solutions. Something as simple, and as proven a waste reducer, as “pay-as-you-throw” is controversial. Only a handful of Connecticut municipalities have adopted it, including Mansfield, Salem and Stonington, while in Massachusetts more than 150 cities and towns have. Nationwide, more than 10,000 communities comprising over 25 percent of the U.S. population do it, according to Lisa Skumatz, a Colorado-based researcher and consultant on municipal solid waste issues.
Whatever menu of means Connecticut eventually embraces to address its moldering crisis — and some are already being tried — the desired end is fairly straightforward: first, generate less garbage to begin with; then divert everything that can be useful from the waste stream; and finally, dispose of the rest responsibly.
In August 2020, a month after Lamont rejected MIRA’s Hail Mary funding request, Dykes announced the formation of CCSMM. The goal was to “develop a set of waste reduction action items” by the end of that year and to “make substantial progress toward reducing several hundred thousand tons of generated MSW [municipal solid waste] statewide by 2027.” The state in 2014 set a goal of diverting 60 percent of its waste stream by 2024, an ambitious target that will not be met. The updated aspiration, getting to 45 percent, will require recovering more than half of the recyclable material currently being thrown away, according to DEEP.
To transition from talk to action, the state invited towns last fall to apply for DEEP grants from a $5 million fund to help jump-start local trash-reduction initiatives, such as unit-based pricing (pay-as-you-throw) and recycling of items like food scraps and textiles. Fifty-five applicants, including seven regional municipal entities, have proposed pilot programs for grant funding that were to be announced this year.
The city of Middletown applied for a grant, but it already had taken proactive measures on its own. Last April it offered free curbside food waste collection to restaurants in its downtown sanitation district, and more than 30 signed on. Blue Earth Compost, a Hartford company, collects from the restaurants twice a week and trucks the gooey amalgam to Quantum Biopower in Southington. Blue Earth also offers curbside-collection service to residents in Middletown, the greater Hartford region and some shoreline areas. Dykes’ family has been a customer for several years.
Meriden also launched a pilot food scrap recovery program this year for about 1,000 households, and in the first month some 5,600 pounds were diverted from the waste stream, according to DEEP, which provided a $40,000 grant for the four-month trial. The mishmash collected from Middletown and Meriden goes into Quantum’s state-of-the art anaerobic digester, which turns it into biogas that is burned, generating kilowatts that are purchased by the town of Southington. Located in an industrial park away from residential areas, the 60-acre site, where large-scale composting of organic yard matter also is conducted, is tidy and, remarkably, odor free. In a good (non-pandemic) year, the food matter that Quantum receives from Middletown and elsewhere produces 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 850 homes for a year, according to Brian Paganini, the firm’s vice president and managing director.
Middletown also offers residents free food-collection receptacles for backyard composting or for depositing in collection sites around the city. Individuals taking responsibility for their own organic throwaways is the ideal solution: there are no transportation costs or disposal fees, and the resulting compost helps their gardens grow. Kim O’Rourke, Middletown’s recycling coordinator, estimates that the city is collecting 7 percent of its food waste. “It’s a step forward but obviously there is a lot of work to be done,” she says. “It’s only a baby step. We need a lot more participation. It’s really something we should have been working on for the past couple of decades. In five years I hope to see food-waste diversion as the norm.”
Other municipalities are taking baby steps, too. In New Haven, Domingo Medina has been collecting food scraps from homes, businesses and schools since 2014, when he founded Peels & Wheels Composting. Today he and a handful of part-time employees ply their weekly rounds, sustainably enough, on bicycles pulling trailers. What they collect — roughly 10 pounds per household per week — is composted at various places in the city, such as the urban farm at Common Ground High School, an environmentally focused charter school.
Transforming a stinking liability into an organic asset is especially welcomed by urban gardeners and farmers because, as Medina points out: “Soil in cities has a history of containing heavy metals like lead or arsenic, so if you want to grow food here, you have to use raised beds, and bring in soil and compost from other places.”
Like Middletown, New Haven still has a long way to go. Medina has nearly 500 customers in a city with some 500,000 households and businesses.
It takes a government to take larger steps. Stonington has been walking the sustainable walk since 1992, when the town’s landfill closed and waste-disposal costs skyrocketed to have trash trucked elsewhere. In response, the town instituted a pay-as-you-throw program; residents purchased yellow bags for their trash — $1.50 for large ones and 85 cents for a small. Businesses came on board in 1997. Recyclables have always been free. “The philosophy is you pay for what you generate,” says John Phetteplace, who has been the Stonington director of solid waste since 1990. “We treat trash like a utility. The more you generate the more you pay.”
The financial incentive worked like a charm: Recycling went way up, and the new unit-based pricing regimen helped Stonington cut its trash tonnage almost in half, according to Phetteplace. And the money saved kept adding up. In 30 years the town has avoided about $7.5 million in disposal costs, enough to pay for a new school, Phetteplace says. He adds, “Pay-as-you-throw is not just good for the environment, it’s good for your pocketbook, too.”
Not everyone in town was happy with the change, and soon after it was instituted the issue went to a referendum. Opponents of bag fees preferred the old laissez-faire approach: the freedom to throw away as much as they wanted and have the cost of waste disposal remain shared, and hidden, in property tax bills. The program survived the vote in Stonington, although not in some other towns that have tried pay-as-you-throw.
Durham, like the vast majority of Connecticut towns, has not followed Stonington’s sustainable lead on charging per bag as yet, but it has adopted other waste-reduction measures, such as a pilot program to collect food waste at its transfer station. It is also looking into targeting other valuable recyclables for separate, controlled collection such as glass, which can contaminate other useful items when included in single-stream recycling.
Durham First Selectwoman Laura Francis is one of three co-chairs of CCSMM, but her town has not ventured into the pay-as-you-throw arena — even though she believes it has an undeniable track record in other towns. “It’s politics; people believe their tax dollars should take care of it,” she says. “And not everyone is willing to separate their garbage. I don’t know why people are opposed to the idea, because it’s 100 percent proven. It does reduce the waste stream. I think we have some work to do to get people to the place where they will readily accept it.”
Lisa Skumatz, whose Colorado firm, SERA, helps municipalities implement waste-reduction measures, says that while unit-based pricing is often controversial initially, residents quickly see the value of it. “When the program has been in place for six months, every study shows that between 89 and 95 percent of the people prefer the new system,” she says. “The opposition to this program comes from the waste haulers and the politicians. Every problem or barrier to implementing the program can be resolved if there is enough political will to do it.”
Skumatz, who made that case at a CCSMM seminar last fall, adds, ‘This is the number one, most cost-effective and most far-reaching thing you can do to achieve more recycling, reduce waste and [achieve] greater sustainability.”
Burying the cost of trash disposal in town budgets will get harder to do as prices continue to escalate much faster than the rate of inflation. Durham is paying $105 a ton in tipping fees alone for disposing of its trash, up from $60 six years ago, and Francis expects that figure to be $137 or higher in five years. One reason for the rise is that the capacity of out-of-state landfills is expected to decrease by as much as 40 percent by 2026, the state estimates.
China’s decision to stop importing many recyclables in 2018 also put a crimp in the world market for plastics and other waste items. For example, the town of East Haddam earned $5 a ton on its recyclables in 2019. This year it will pay $36 a ton to get rid of it. The town doesn’t have a pay-as-you-throw program, although a 2019 citizen study committee recommended it, and East Haddam also doesn’t charge two local trash haulers for what they dump at its transfer station. Taxpayers foot the bill for having it all trucked to Willimantic, subsidizing the private firms and their customers. Small wonder that the town pays about twice what comparable municipalities in its regions do to dispose of its trash.
This example represents one of the major challenges of addressing Connecticut’s waste crisis: East Haddam is just one of 169 municipalities, and each does its own thing. One of the goals of CCSMM is to engage the state’s independent-minded towns and cities, as well as regional waste districts, to see if they can all get on the same page, or at least be in the same chapter. The coalition has formed working groups on various waste-management strategies like unit-based pricing, and has hosted seminars and workshops led by experts in the field.
Mandating unit-based pricing or food-waste recycling statewide, however, as California has done, is currently not on the table, according to Dykes. “We have heard from legislators that they prefer to create incentives for towns and residents to adopt those measures,” she says. “That’s why we established the $5 million grant fund to provide incentives. I am confident that we are going to see a lot of pilot and demonstration projects popping up all over the state in different communities.”
The other way to get towns walking the sustainable walk is to make it clear to officials that there are ways that their constituents can throw away less and pay less for what they throw away. It’s nice to do the right ecological thing, of course, but money talks.
Brian Paganini of Quantum Biopower says his firm saves municipalities up to 30 percent on the cost of their food-waste disposal — and turns it into something valuable in the bargain. For every 10 pounds of food scraps that go into Quantum’s clean and efficient anaerobic digester, eight pounds becomes electricity and the rest emerges as useful organic compost for farmers and gardeners.
Paganini and the DEEP see anaerobic technology as the wave of the future, and the company is in discussions with potential partners about establishing more anaerobic digesters elsewhere in Connecticut. “There are a couple of things in the pipeline I can’t talk about yet; we’re having a lot of great conversations,” he says.
To date, two such facilities are operating: in addition to Quantum’s, which is five years old, Fort Hill Farms in Thompson opened one in 2020. Two others — a second in Southington and one in North Haven — have been permitted. If separating and recycling food scraps catches on big time in Connecticut, Paganini says it would take about 10 or 12 facilities like the one Quantum operates to handle it all. When (and if) that sustainable day arrives, Connecticut would have taken a giant step toward handling all of its own trash more sustainably. “There’s a real opportunity here for the state to become a leader in waste management again,” Paganini says.
“We’re not powerless, I think that’s the point,” says DEEP Commissioner Dykes. “There are lots of options that are available. We need to help people understand what these options are — how slight changes in behavior can impact quality of life, keep costs down, as well as protect the environment.”
SIDEBAR: The ‘landfill from hell’
Opened in 1940 within a mile of Hartford’s North End, this increasingly unsanitary landfill would grow to epitomize the bad old days of simply dumping and burying trash. Into this century the nearby neighborhood’s predominantly minority residents endured the smell and periodic dump-fire smoke from Mount Trashmore, especially when wafting in on an east wind.
The nearly 100-acre Hartford site imported trash from more than 60 municipalities in Connecticut and adjacent states. North End lawns sometimes were littered with dead birds, and the dust from trash-incinerator ash that was dumped there could coat cars and yards like a shower of malevolent snow. Eerie flares could be seen at night as methane oozing from garbage was burned off. Worse yet, elevated levels of asthma and cancer were documented among the North End residents.
The mountain of trash piled up relentlessly, to 138 feet above the natural landscape, affording a view all the way to Higby Mountain in Meriden and to Mount Tom in Massachusetts. In 2003, the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority, which leased the site from the city, proposed raising the allowable height of garbage another 50 feet.
To community activists who had been battling with site managers for decades, this was a declaration of war — a war that the neighborhood would eventually win. The last load of trash was dumped there in 2008 and by 2015 the site was fully capped with an impervious membrane that was covered with clean soil.
Today the site, remarkably enough, is home to a variety of wildlife and some 4,000 solar panels. That’s progress, for sure, but most of the trash that Connecticut is exporting this year will wind up in landfills.
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email email@example.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.
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