Measure to increase recycling goes before state lawmakers

As the 44th annual observance of Earth Day takes place today, a committee of the General Assembly will take up a measure that would set a new, more ecologically progressive course for how Connecticut handles its trash.

"By recycling more instead of trying to find a hole in the ground to put our waste in, or burning it, this will make for a more environmentally friendly state of Connecticut," state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee, said Monday.

Meyer is also vice chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which today is scheduled to take up Senate Bill 27, a measure that would set a goal for 60 percent of the state's waste to be recycled by 2024 and reduce its dependence on trash-to-energy plants as a means of getting rid of its garbage. The Environment Committee on March 21 approved 24-4 an amended version of the original bill, sending it to the administration and elections committee, where Meyer said he expects the members will vote to send the bill to the full Senate with some additional changes to assuage concerns raised by private trash haulers.

"We have a problem in Connecticut, because we're only diverting 25 percent of our solid waste to recycling, and other states and countries are doing much better," Meyer said.

Recyclable materials, including glass, paper, organic wastes and plastics that are ending up in incinerators have an estimated value of $10 million annually, Meyer said.

"We're burning close to $10 million in economic value," he said.

The bill was introduced by Democratic leadership at the request of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. It builds on initiatives that began at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection two years ago to revamp how the state handles its trash, said Macky McCleary, deputy commissioner of DEEP.

"We're talking about rethinking a system that's been in place for 30 to 40 years," he said.

Under the proposed bill, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the agency that oversees the state's largest incinerator, would be reconstituted as the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, with a new focus on recycling more and burning less, McCleary said. It burns about 2,850 tons per day from 51 member towns. While incineration replaced dependence on landfills more than 25 years ago, it did not eliminate the use of landfills because incinerator ash is still buried.

The bill would also create a new independent nonprofit, Connecticut Recycles, to promote and educate the public about recycling. It would direct DEEP to seek proposals from private companies to create new markets for recyclable materials, including organic wastes that could be composted or sent to anaerobic digesters to produce energy, McCleary said. In addition, the agency would work with manufacturers to produce goods that can be more easily recycled and reduce packaging waste. There is about $600,000 in the governor's budget proposal to support these initiatives.

"These materials could be reused better than setting them on fire," McCleary said. "We're interested in technologies that would provide greater environmental and economic benefits, but we're agnostic about what those might be. There are a lot of cool technologies out there."

The changes, he said, would not have a great impact on how individual residents who are already recycling handle their own trash, "but may make recycling opportunities more available," he added.

Besides directly affect operations at the CRRA plant, the bill could also affect operations at the Preston waste-to-energy incinerator overseen by the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority, which is used by 12 New London County towns.

"They (SCRRRA) would be critical partners for the future," McCleary said. "This bill in no way is designed to put them out of business. The incinerator would still be used in some form. But we are over-reliant now on incineration."

Among groups that testified on the bill during the Environment Committee public hearing in March was the state chapter of the National Waste & Recycling Association. Steve Changaris, manager of the chapter, supports the intent of the bill, but believes it needs further revision to ensure that the private recycling companies his group represents can take advantage of any new or expanded markets for recycled and reused materials.

"It's a work in progress," he said.

Markets are especially needed for recycled glass, wood waste, asphalt shingles and gypsum wallboard, he said.

Abe Scarr, director of the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, testified in favor of the bill and believes it has a good chance of passing. Overall, he said, the changes the measure would bring about will ultimately save towns money as more trash is recycled and fees paid to incinerators are reduced. Burning less trash will also reduce pollutants and emissions, he said, improving air quality and public health.

"Seventy-five percent of what's now going to landfills or incinerators can be reused or recycled," he said. "As a state and as a nation, after 44 years we are recognizing that we live in a world of finite resources and need to be good stewards of the environment, and that we need these resources to sustain our economy. It's time to set a new course and move away from incineration."

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