As Waste Disposal Options Become More Limited, Sustainable Materials Management Will be Key to An Affordable, Sustainable & Equitable Future
You may be familiar with the three “R’s” of waste management – reduce, reuse, and recycle. This year, during America Recycles Week and beyond, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) is encouraging residents, businesses, and community leaders to add a fourth “R” to the equation: Rethink.
Connecticut is facing a waste crisis, as traditional options for disposing of municipal solid waste are slowly diminishing. Five waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities in the state handle the majority of the 2.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) that is disposed each year. One of these facilities, the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) waste-to-energy facility in Hartford, is an aging facility and is likely to shut down in coming years.
Connecticut and municipalities are increasingly turning to export of their MSW to out-of-state landfills as an alternative. In 2013, the state exported 63,457 tons to out-of-state landfills, compared to 302,866 tons in 2018. With fewer and rapidly aging disposal options in the state, residents and municipal leaders can expect tipping fees to increase at the remaining in-state waste-to-energy facilities, along with rates for out-of-state landfilling. Available space in northeast landfills may decline 40% by 2026. Landfilling also exposes business and towns to unpredictable cost increases as they compete for transportation and landfill capacity as well as potential long-term liability if a landfill has a release or is otherwise a source of pollution in the future.
“This is a silent crisis, a quiet crisis, but a crisis nonetheless,” DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said. “Many towns are struggling with increased tip fees and all of the indicators are telling us that the situation will get worse. The good news is that if we act now, we can rethink our waste system and invest in sustainable materials management solutions that will help us limit our reliance on landfills and waste-to-energy facilities in the future.”
According to a 2015 study, nearly 40% of what residents throw away is material that could be recycled. Another 35% is organic material—food scraps and yard waste—that can be donated, composted, and processed into animal feed. In August, DEEP launched the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM) in partnership with 74 Connecticut municipalities, to identify sustainable materials management solutions for Connecticut’s waste crisis. The CCSMM has convened four working groups that are hard at work coming up with solutions around reducing the waste stream, reusing materials and increasing recycling while seeking to innovate and learn from waste professionals and other environmental agencies across the country.
So far, the conversations within the working groups have been instructive and illuminating. Members have shared experiences and lessons learned from various efforts to adopt effective waste diversion strategies, and engaged with market participants and local stakeholders to solicit input and proposed waste diversion solutions. Now at the midpoint of its charge, the CCSMM will identify and evaluate a menu of options that municipalities and/or the state can adopt to progress toward our goal of a sustainable waste system, and report on its findings and suggestions in early January.
Starting this week, DEEP invites Connecticut residents to Rethink our waste system, by learning more about CCSMM through the CCSMM page on DEEP’s website. Residents are urged to Rethink and be more mindful at every aspect of the waste stream- from rethinking our patterns of consumption (“Do I really need to buy this item? Will I consume all of this product before it expires?”), to rethinking how to dispose of a product once it is no longer of use to you (“Can I compost this food waste? Is this item recyclable? If my local recycling center does not accept this item, is there a specialty recycling center nearby that does?”).
DEEP has many resources available for community and household leaders alike to help answer these questions. Are you a municipal leader eager to learn more about food scrap collection and diversion, or unit-based pricing? Go here to learn more about CCSMM’s work. Interested in becoming a more effective recycler at home? Go here to learn the basics about household recycling in Connecticut, and what should and should not go into your recycling bin. Have a specific item you are not sure about, i.e. old batteries, carpets and rugs, or appliances? Visit our “What do I do with..” page, complete with an A-Z list that offers insights on how to dispose of items ranging from aerosol cans to yoga mats in the most sustainable way possible.
Over the next several months, DEEP seeks to continue the conversation around this crisis, and plans to share resources on our social media channels via the hashtag #RethinkWasteCT. We hope it is a thought process you decide to engage in, whether it is individual action, or learning about strategies that could be scaled up in your community and advocating for them. These actions taken together can transform Connecticut’s waste system.
“All across the state, there are examples of municipal leaders, entrepreneurs, and community advocates launching innovative programs and businesses that are helping our state recycle, compost, and reuse valuable materials in our waste stream,” Commissioner Dykes said. “With the waste crisis looming, we all have a role to play in building on and supporting those examples, and it all starts when we rethink.”