After decades of burning trash, the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) will close its Hartford incinerator by July 2022. That means hundreds of thousands of tons of trash will be destined for out-of-state landfills, a costly reality that has state and municipal officials questioning how to quickly reduce trash volumes.
One solution? Recycling leftover food.
You may not know it, but Connecticut actually has a law that says food waste needs to be recycled. The thing is, it only applies to big commercial producers in certain locations.
When COVID-19 shut everything down, Brian Paganini said many of those producers just stopped sending old food to his recycling plant.
“Mostly because restaurants and hotels and universities were ceasing operation,” said Paganini. “So those places weren’t diverting food waste. They weren’t creating food waste.”
Paganini is vice president of Quantum Biopower in Southington, which runs an “anaerobic digester,” recycling food waste to turn it into compost and biogas for renewable electricity.
Each year, Connecticut throws out around half a million tons of food. But a lot of that food waste goes into traditional waste streams, like Hartford’s MIRA facility, where it gets burned.
That’s created a paradox in Connecticut’s waste economy: Large volumes of food scraps go in the trash, but recyclers like Quantum can find themselves starving.
Paganini said the COVID-19 pandemic, which dramatically reduced the commercial waste streams at the heart of the organics recycling law, only further highlighted this weakness in Connecticut’s food waste system.
“This facility, and a lot of the mandates in the state, are built around harvesting and diverting food waste from commercial customers. But the pandemic really changed and reshaped a lot of that waste culture,” Paganini said.
Giving A ‘Jump-start’ To Stalled Legislation
Since the passage of Connecticut’s 2011 law mandating food recycling among commercial producers, Quantum is the only anaerobic digester recycling facility that’s come online in the state in response.
“The diversion mandate in the state lacks a certain level of enforcement, and it also lacks a certain level of incentivization,” said Paganini. “In order for mandates to be effective, they have to be enforced. And quite frankly, my opinion is that an effective mandate deeply incentivizes those who choose to participate in that program.”
Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, acknowledged that the diversion mandate needs a “jump-start.”
“We have had significant success in getting some of the larger facilities permitted, but we haven’t seen those permitted facilities actually get constructed,” Dykes said.
A plant planned for Bridgeport fell apart and two other projects in Connecticut are on pause.
“And part of that relates to, you know, in order to get financing, these projects need to have a number of pieces to fall into place,” Dykes said.
Like knowing a project will make enough money off any power it creates, which has given some developers pause.
Meanwhile, there’s the ongoing question about whether enough food waste will be diverted from traditional waste streams and make its way to a recycling facility to ensure that future food waste plants can make money.
Tom Kirk, who heads up MIRA, said the state’s vision for food waste recycling has been “absolutely sound in its goals.”
“But its execution has not lived up to expectations. Frankly, I think there was some naiveté and unrealistic expectations,” Kirk said. “We knew there’s only so much food waste that you can extract out of the system and hope to manage it. And it was extraordinarily expensive in the best of all possible worlds.”
From 2016 through 2019, the state reported diverting about 2,500 tons of food waste under its mandate.
Tonnages are likely higher, but it’s unclear by how much. A spokesperson for the DEEP said there’s no reporting requirements for large generators of food waste. Instead, the agency’s estimate is based on “inspections of large food generators bound by the law over that time period.”
Paganini estimated about 4,000 to 6,000 tons of food waste are sent to him each year through the state’s diversion mandate. To survive, he said his business has been forced to recruit food waste generators from outside of Connecticut.
And while the waste sent to him from the state’s mandate is just a fraction of Paganini’s overall waste stream, it’s an even smaller drop in the statewide bucket, considering MIRA’s Hartford incinerator annually takes at least 100 times that much trash.
“It is unrealistic to plan on reducing our per capita waste generation to the point where we don’t need the capacity. We will generate the waste. We know that. Unless we move back to the Stone Age, the waste is going to come,” Kirk said.
Dykes said the state needs to do a better job of recruiting more commercial customers. But she said another piece of the organics puzzle is diverting residential food waste, which is a big focus area for the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management.
“When we surveyed all of the 74 towns that joined into this coalition earlier this year, the solution that folks were the most interested in is collection of organic waste, including food scraps and yard waste,” Dykes said.
That coalition began to meet in September and hopes to present a number of legislative options in the coming weeks. Dykes said grants to haulers for equipment upgrades are one idea. The coalition is also considering proposing more funding for enforcement, incentivization of renewable natural gas production and stronger regulations on commercial generators.
Paganini said now that the incinerators at MIRA’s Hartford plant are closing, he’s optimistic the state’s diversion mandate will be reinvigorated with interest from commercial and residential customers.
And he hopes that dusting off that old mandate provides a possible answer to a question the state desperately needs to solve.
“Do we want to send our waste out of state to make it someone else’s problem?” Paganini said. “Or do we want to harvest the good stuff out of waste here in Connecticut — turn it into usable products like energy and materials — and try to manage as much as we can within our state borders?”