Solid proposals for solid waste

Let's hear it for municipal decision making that calls on the common sense of the citizens who will have to live with the results. If Connecticut is going to continue to cope with the inefficiencies of home rule — having 169 town governments operating as stand-alone systems — then it ought to benefit from the advantages of hyperlocal governance as well.

Citizen involvement generally widens perspective on an issue. Always, it opens up the discussion for increased public awareness before the die is cast. It is democracy at the grassroots.

The latest good example of this is New London's Solid Waste Management Task Force. The City Council commissioned the group last summer to examine best practices for reducing solid waste and associated costs and for increasing public awareness about recycling. It doesn't get any more grassroots than garbage collection.

The task force recently gave the council its recommendations for practical measures and, most importantly, equitable sharing of the costs.

Ideas include adding a wheeled, 96-gallon recycling cart to the same size trash cart already in use at homes and businesses. Like last year's unpopular Pay-As-You-Throw proposal, which inspired formation of the task force, the recommended plan would apply to all users. Trash removal would become a utility, like water and sewers, subject to a fee rather than a tax. Tax-exempt status does not apply to fees, so any establishment in the city that uses public waste collection would be included.

For residences, the only change under the plan would be going from a small recycling bin to the larger cart, at no additional cost. That's appropriate and welcome. Any establishment, commercial or otherwise, that needs additional carts would pay a fee of $84 a year per cart and an extra charge for multiple pickups per week. Also appropriate, and fair.

The two-cart system works well in many municipalities. A larger recycling receptacle makes sense, given the increased volume of household and office discards that can now be recycled. Kitchen cabinet designers have been allotting extra space for recyclables for decades; it's only logical that what takes up more space in the house will take up more space on the curb.

New London's low recycling rate isn't supportable, either financially or environmentally. Change is years overdue. That's why The Day sided with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the city administration on the Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) proposal for property owners to buy and use special yellow bags. At the time, city administrators ruled out new recyclables carts because they could cost more than a half-million dollars.

If the council approves the task force recommendations, the carts will still present a hefty start-up cost, but the plan would be to set up the waste management system as an "enterprise fund," outside the city's general fund. And the higher the rate of recycling, the less trash that gets hauled to the Preston waste-to-energy plant at $58 per ton. The annual cost has been about $700,000 for 12,000 tons. Recyclables earn the city $5 per ton. Money spent on disposal is money spent to lose stuff no one wants. It's better to earn, even modestly, than to spend money losing. 

Public education work by the task force has encouraged more recycling, according to its chairman, Bryan Doughty, and the committee is seeking more ways for residents to be part of the solution. Those include more convenient hours at the city transfer station. Students at the Science and Technology Magnet High School recently ran their own assessment of school-generated waste. Anything that puts recycling on people's minds should help.

The recommendations next need approval from the council's Finance, Public Works and Economic Development committees. Council President Don Venditto promised a public hearing before anything is enacted. The council should take a hard look at the financial impacts but bear in mind that a multi-year proposal such as this can be expected to cover more of its costs over time.

Mayor Michael Passero took a lot of heat for the original PAYT proposal, but his actions forced the conversation about the need for changes. The task force added what was missing — citizen participation and public education. The Day urges the council and the administration to find a way to move this issue forward, now that the city has tapped in to a common sense of what will work for New London.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of task force Chairman Bryan Doughty's name.

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