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The Zero Waste Solution:How 21st Century Recycling and Trash Reduction Can Protect Public Health and Boost Connecticut's Economy
by Jordan Schneider, Frontier Group, and Abe Scarr, ConnPIRG Education Fund
Connecticut burns more of its waste than any other state in the country, generating more than half a million tons of toxic ash every year. Connecticut’s recycling rate, currently at 24 percent, has been stagnant for years, and the state has continued to generate more trash per person over time. The state produces more trash than it can incinerate or landfill, and as a result, we export up to 386,000 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) to other states for disposal every year.
Fortunately, nearly all of our trash could be reused or recycled, and policymakers can greatly increase recycling and keep trash out of incinerators and landfills by doing simple things like enforcing recycling laws already on the books, updating the Bottle Bill, and eliminating wasteful packaging. These and other common-sense policies will save money and help the state transition to a “zero waste” future.
Connecticut burns more of its trash than any other state in the country, generating more than half a million tons of toxic ash every year, which threatens public health.
- Connecticut burns nearly 1,200 pounds of MSW per person per year.
- Each year, waste incineration produces about 550,000 tons of ash that contains toxic pollutants such as mercury compounds and dioxins. These pollutants contaminate air and water and accumulate in the food chain, exposing humans to an increased risk of cancer, neurological damage and developmental disorders.
Connecticut generates about 400,000 more tons of trash than it can dispose of within its borders each year.
- Connecticut’s annual solid waste exports to other states have increased thirteen-fold since 1994.
- Relying on out-of-state disposal carries inherent financial and legal risks, including the potential for sharp price increases in fuel costs or disposal fees, the possibility of sudden policy changes in other states to limit imports, and legal liability for improperly managed disposal sites.
By reducing, reusing and recycling more of its waste, Connecticut can create a long-term solution to its waste management problems that not only protects public health and the environment, but also creates millions of dollars in economic benefits.
- Connecticut businesses could earn millions of dollars by recycling more materials and selling them as commodities. For example, the 15,600 tons of #1 PET or PETE plastic containers that the state threw away in 2009 would have been worth between $4.4 million and $12.5 million in 2011.
- Municipal governments could have saved $45-$90 in avoided disposal costs for each ton of material recycled rather than thrown away in FY 2010.
- In 2012, recycling activity in Connecticut generated about $746 million for the state economy and resulted in employment of more than 4,800 people, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center. Expanding recycling would create new economic opportunities.
Connecticut has adopted a statewide goal of diverting 58 percent of its waste from landfills and incinerators by 2024. State and local leaders can help achieve this goal by following the best practices of other cities and counties with successful recycling programs. In general, these programs follow a set of common-sense principles:
Reduce our production of waste.
- Ban certain unrecyclable materials. Banning materials that cannot be reused, recycled or composted prevents them from ever entering the waste stream. Dozens of cities in California have banned Styrofoam take-out food containers at restaurants.
- Buy environmentally friendly and recycled products. The state should lead the way in purchasing products that are made of recycled materials. The state could set requirements for state agencies to purchase recycled-content products, or require the use of remanufactured goods, such as retreaded tires, in state contracts.
- Extend responsibility for recycling to product manufacturers. The sale of wastefully packaged products with hazardous or difficult-to-recycle components increases the financial and environmental burden on the state for waste management. The state should expand its product stewardship laws to give manufacturers greater responsibility over the ultimate fate of their products.
Encourage reuse of materials.
- Build infrastructure for recycling organic material. The state should facilitate construction of organic composting and anaerobic digesting facilities. Once this infrastructure is developed, the state should extend its current requirement for institutions and other large producers of food waste to compost or recycle to homes and small businesses, as well.
- Build recycling infrastructure for construction and demolition materials. The state should facilitate construction of processing and recycling centers for construction and demolition materials. Once this infrastructure is in place, municipalities should set recycling requirements for construction and demolition projects.
- Facilitate the development and expansion of recycling businesses and markets in Connecticut and the region. Increases in recycling will go hand-in-hand with the expansion of markets for recycled material and recycling-related businesses. Governor Malloy recently announced the creation of the Recycling Market Development Council. The council is a good first step and should focus on both in-state and regional market development opportunities.
Expand and enforce existing recycling laws.
- Periodically expand the list of statewide mandated recyclables. The overall composition of MSW can change over time, so the state should periodically update its list of mandated recyclables to ensure that recycling rates remain high.
- Implement unit-based pricing. Under these programs, residents and businesses that generate less waste don’t pay as much for disposal. This pricing system is already helping to drive recycling rates in cities such as Portland and Stonington.
- Enforce residential curbside recycling. Municipal governments should improve efforts to educate residents about curbside recycling programs. Local governments should also enforce recycling ordinances by levying fines for contamination of garbage with recyclables, or refuse to collect waste that is contaminated with recyclables.
- Enforce recycling mandates and disposal bans at incinerators. Incinerator operators should be accountable for complying with requirements for regular reporting to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about the origin and quantity of recyclable materials in the loads delivered by trash haulers. Failure to comply with these requirements or to reject loads with excessive amounts of recyclables should result in fines.
- Expand the Bottle Bill to include all containers. Connecticut’s Bottle Bill helps capture 56-70 percent of all currently eligible containers, removing them from the waste stream. The state should expand the Bottle Bill to all beverage containers.
Reduce the cost and administrative burden of waste management on municipalities.
- Regionalize collection systems and require municipal participation. The state should create regional recycling districts – served by regional infrastructure – that coordinate with existing waste management authorities to improve collection and recycling rates for recyclable materials. Municipal participation in these districts should be mandatory.
- Incineration threatens public health and wastes resources. As we increase recycling, incineration rates will necessarily decrease. The state should develop a plan to transition away from incineration as a waste management strategy. Policymakers should not privilege waste-to-energy electricity by classifying it as a renewable resource eligible for tax credits. This will create a direct disincentive for recycling and impede the growth of truly renewable energy industries, such as wind and solar.
Make zero waste a statewide public policy goal.
- Connecticut currently has a goal of diverting 58 percent of our waste from landfills and incinerators by 2024. However, communities such as San Francisco and Nantucket Island have shown that it is possible to reduce solid waste by 80-90 percent through waste reduction and recycling programs. Connecticut should strengthen its waste diversion goal to at least 80 percent by 2030 and give the goal the force of law by making the goal statutory.