Opinion: CT’s trash and recycling crisis is here now

This could and should be a very critical year in Connecticut’s trash collection and recycling crisis. We are at a crossroads in our state — the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford has closed, and for the first time in four decades trucks are not delivering trash to that facility. It means that hundreds of thousands of tons of Connecticut waste will be shipped to landfills in other states.

No one is happy with this result, seeing it as irresponsible, expensive and stressful to the environment, state leaders and municipal leaders.

On a positive note, residents of some towns are now separating their food scraps from other trash so the organic waste can be turned into biogas and fertilizer. These efforts, if successful, could be replicated in other communities, significantly reducing the stream of waste.

There are a number of state working groups, task forces and commissions to study and make recommendations for short-term and long-term solutions to the trash problem. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and local leaders believe that a combination of shorter-term and longer-term solutions, including a stronger state role in solid waste management, are critical.

Prior to the establishment of trash-to-energy plants in Connecticut, there was was a time when almost every municipality had a town dump that was likely releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, polluting groundwater and playing host to an army of vermin. Turning trash into electricity was seen as a vast improvement, and six trash-to-energy plants were built.

Connecticut produces almost 2.4 million tons of trash a year, of which about 1.4 million are managed by the in-state incinerators. That means almost a million tons must be shipped to out of state landfills. The immediate goal is to reduce that number to the point where the state is self-sufficient, managing its own waste, a goal of the state’s 2016 waste management plan.

The state of recycling also needs a renewal itself. Towns and cities cannot continue to afford to have recyclables become a greater expense, one that matches solid landfill waste. There are ideas out there for municipalities to lessen the tipping fees for their towns; in one case that means banning certain items altogether, in another you remove an item like glass from the stream.

Local governments have no intention of halting recycling. There is too much invested in our natural beauty and resources, our rivers, lakes and forests to let recyclables pile up in landfills, taking up more and more of the finite resource of our great state’s land.

CCM continues to call on the governor and General Assembly to begin to explore ways to establish new recycling markets in the state as an economic development opportunity. An opportunity that will not only help the economy statewide but that will alleviate the financial burdens that China’s decision to limit the kind of recyclables our local communities across the nation can ship to them.

Those factors are among the many placing local governments in the state on the hook for the expanding costs of managing packaging materials, especially plastics. The current slump in recycling markets has helped draw attention to the fact that taxpayers and ratepayers bear the primary risk of any downturn in the value of collected material.

At a time when local recycling operations moved from a revenue generator to a growing expense, CCM does not want DEEP to impose additional requirements on our local governments. But we do agree that waste reduction should be part of the overall solution to reduce rising local costs.

CCM supports and acknowledges the departments efforts to move away from the use of a “stick” and rather to encourage local goals towards waste reduction standards. our state legislature, in partnership with the governor and local leaders, must have the courage to enact sensible solutions that may be unpopular. We must encourage all residents, businesses and other producers of waste and recycling to be accountable in solving this statewide problem.

Matthew Knickerbocker is town administrator in Wilton and a member of the board of directors of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.