TRASH TO CASH

New London can save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year with sensible recycling

By LAURA NATUSCH
and AUNDRE BUMGARDNER

Everyone knows recycling is good for the environment. It conserves resources, reduces the use of toxic chemicals, and preserves natural habitats. But fewer people realize that by recycling, they can save cash-strapped municipalities money - lots of money.

Here in New London, each ton of trash we send to the incinerator costs the city $60. That doesn't sound like much, but in 2010 New Londoners threw away 10,910 tons of trash, costing taxpayers $654,600. (This excludes trash picked up by private haulers.) On the positive side, that same year we recycled nearly 1,600 tons, saving $95,000.

We can do better. In fact, our recycling rate hovers at an abysmally low 15 percent. By bringing our rate up to the national average of 34 percent, we could save an additional $125,000, enough for Youth Affairs, or Senior Center programming, or an additional police officer or two.

This needn't be expensive. The city of New London can start by educating residents about what and why to recycle, and reminding them that recycling services are provided in conjunction with trash collection. Officials could post additional information on recycling more prominently online, include it with property tax bills, and talk about it on cable access shows.

We could reach people by partnering with local organizations and nonprofits. We could emphasize the importance of recycling in every school, using it as part of our science, math, language and art curriculums. We could set monthly goals and give a percentage of savings to local charities if those goals are met.

Through efforts like these, we could potentially double our recycling rate. But the cities with the highest recycling rates - like San Francisco, at 80 percent - focus not only on recycling, but on composting as well. Nearly 100 U.S. cities offer curbside compostable pick up. Portland, Oregon residents reduced their garbage by 38 percent in a single year when the city introduced a curbside composting program. Other cities encourage home composting by providing free or low-cost bins.

Some New London institutions, organizations and people are already composting. Since 2007, Connecticut College has composted its food waste in an earth tub, a commercial-sized composting unit which reduces the college's food waste by 17.5 tons a year. FRESH maintains large compost piles for their community gardens. The Regional Multicultural Magnet School teaches students about worm composting, a method that yardless apartment dwellers and condominium owners can use. A few local restaurants give biodegradable scraps to area gardeners as well.

Still, we've barely scratched the surface of composting's potential. The city should investigate the costs, methods and potential payoffs of offering municipal composting. Less ambitiously, we could look for grant money to buy composting bins for residents. Neighborhood groups could find sites for composting units such as area parks, and either give the compost back to participants or use it for beautification projects. Easiest of all, every time the city educates residents about recycling, it should talk about composting as well.

New London is required to send almost 15,000 tons of trash to the Preston incinerator. Between the trash picked up by Public Works employees and private haulers, we meet this with over 6,000 tons to spare. If we made a commitment to reducing our waste by even 5,000 tons through recycling and composting, we would not only be better environmental stewards; we'd also save $300,000. If our elected officials had an opportunity to save that much money with no loss of jobs or services, we'd want them to take it. Shouldn't we ask as much of ourselves?

More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Things don't change, we change." As individuals and as a community, it's time to change the way we think about trash. Let's work together to stop throwing money away.

Aundré Bumgardner is a New London Republican and Laura Natusch is a New London Democrat. They believe reducing solid waste is a nonpartisan issue.

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