Advocates push for action on clean energy, environment

Hartford — While single-stream recycling lets consumers mix varied types of recyclables in one container and has led to cheaper disposal deals for municipalities over the years, industry experts say it’s helped lead to a recycling crisis.

“Residents put everything they think ... they can, or they should (put) in their recycling bin,” said Jennifer Heaton-Jones, executive director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, a waste management and recycling authority serving western Connecticut. “Mixed recycling is dirty and contaminated by unacceptable items, household garbage, garden hoses, plastic bags, concrete blocks and propane tanks.”

Heaton-Jones, one of several panelists at the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters’ annual environmental summit at Trinity College on Thursday, said single-stream recycling has led to 20 percent contamination rates, producing dirty piles of recyclables in the U.S. and higher recycling costs for municipalities.

China, which used to accept much of the country’s recycling, now requires recyclables at least 99.5 percent free of contaminants, she said.

“We need to recycle right, not recycle more of everything,” said Heaton-Jones, one of many advocates and state leaders pushing for reductions in waste, in greenhouse gas emissions, in electricity use and in energy costs, especially among low- and middle-income families.

The crowd, which included environmental advocates, clean energy business leaders and many state lawmakers, responded enthusiastically to panelists’ legislative goals for 2019, including a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags; an end to cuts at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; approval of a state water plan; greater diversity among policymakers; a boost in renewable energy including shared solar power and offshore wind; and assurances that the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont won't fill budget gaps by hijacking ratepayer funds earmarked for energy efficiency programs.

“It’s an exciting time,” said newly named DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes in an interview after she and Lamont offered remarks to the crowd.

“We have a governor who’s very personally committed to a very strong environmental agenda," she said. "He recognizes the urgency of climate change and the need to address it, and he sees the transformation we need to make across our economy, whether it’s deploying more offshore wind or solar, investing in energy efficiency or building out more efficient transit options for folks and getting them out of their cars.”

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said in an interview that his town — the first in Connecticut to implement a ban on single-use plastic bags — demonstrated that “people can change behaviors.”

Steinberg said that while it may have seemed relatively easy for an affluent town like Westport to implement such a ban, a wide range of cities and towns, including Waterford, are examining it “because they know it’s a critical public good.”

“Why should you have 30 different laws in 30 different towns when the state can do something?” he said. “It would make it easier to negotiate with grocery bag manufacturers. But it starts small. You can’t count on the feds to do anything. We have momentum but things aren’t that easy. There’s genuine opposition.”

In the meantime, he said, it was critical to educate people on the harms of single-use plastic bags and encourage them to use reusable bags instead.

Claire Coleman, an attorney with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said the state faced catastrophic effects of climate change within the next dozen years.

“We need action this year,” she said, calling for “smart budget decisions,” including doubling down on energy efficiency investments, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and ramping up renewable energy sources.

Coleman added that it was vital that “ratepayers’ precious funds and precious investments don’t go to dirty energy when we could be investing in solar and wind.”

Leticia Colon De Mejias, founder of Windsor-based Energy Efficiencies Solutions and a plaintiff in a battle with the state over $147 million diverted from energy efficiency programs, said in an interview that negotiations are ongoing among state leaders to restore some of the funds. She added that not only did the funding sweeps cost the state tens of millions of dollars in energy costs but also thousands of jobs in energy efficiency businesses.

While the state has geared up investment in zero emission vehicles and charging and refueling stations, De Mejias argued the state should focus on zero-emission public transportation to help “a population that’s underrepresented, working two jobs and can’t be at meetings where decisions are being made, taking care of their families and just trying to survive.”

“While we’re yelling that we don’t have enough money, 320,000 households are not able to afford their electric bill and 38 percent of our population couldn’t afford their heating costs last year,” she said. “We have to diversify the people writing the policies and our recipe for our energy mix.”

Brenda Watson, executive director of Operation Fuel, which provides energy assistance to residents, pushed for continued support of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. She also said officials had urged Lamont and lawmakers to form a council on energy affordability and equity.

b.kail@theday.com

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