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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Stonington residents taking part in pilot program to reduce waste

    Troy Crandall, of F.E.Crandall, picks up a green food scrap bag on Mason’s Island for the town of Stonington’s food scrap program, Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    For years, Stonington resident Stephanie Draus wanted to compost and reduce her household waste.

    As an apartment dweller, though, she didn't have an opportunity to have a backyard compost, and even after moving into a home with a yard, creating a pile didn't seem feasible. She was thrilled when Stonington began curbside food scrap recycling in January.

    "We first encountered municipal composting while on vacation in Ontario more than a decade ago, and we have been waiting to jump on that bandwagon ever since," Draus said. "We put our bag out for pickup once every two weeks, since we don't generate a huge amount of scraps and we prefer to reduce the number of plastic bags that we throw out, including the compost bags provided by the program."

    At first glance, the green bags and pails Draus and other town residents place outside their homes on trash pickup days don't appear revolutionary, but they're part of a pilot program that, if successful, will reduce waste, save the town money and help to fight climate change. Full of food scraps instead of rubbish, the bags are picked up by F.E. Crandall Disposal and brought to Southington, where Quantum Biopower turns the organic waste into compost and energy.

    The 12-month pilot program was made possible through a Sustainable Materials Management grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Under the program, residents can put fruits and vegetables without stickers, coffee, bread, grains, pastas, meat, seafood, dairy products, egg shells, leftover spoiled food, chips and snacks, nuts and seeds, desserts, cut flowers, and tea bags without staples in the green bags and then place the bags or the bags in their buckets (helps to reduce the odor) out on their curb on their trash collection days.

    It's no secret that food waste is a huge problem. According to DEEP, the average person in Connecticut throws away 740 pounds of waste annually, of which 22 percent is food. At the same time, the state is struggling to dispose of all that waste, with 40 percent of trash sent out of state, waste disposal sites nearing capacity and fees increasing.

    "It's concerning for a number of reasons, including economic development," DEEP Commissioner Katie Scharf Dykes said. "There's less predictably in terms of cost; we've seen waste disposal fees double in municipality budgets and recycling fee increases as well."

    Food waste is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and households, according to several studies, are responsible for the most significant share of that waste. When food gets tossed into a landfill, it gets piled under other debris, and in that oxygen-starved setting it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In contrast, when appropriately managed, composting is an aerobic process that doesn't give off methane. While some home gardeners do compost their food scraps, many people don't have that option and only 5% of American households have access to curbside food waste collection.

    "Food waste is really valuable, as compost, it can also be a renewable fuel or processed into animal feed supplements," Scharf Dykes said. "The challenge is how to support municipalities to give residents curbside collection."

    Stonington a leader

    Stonington has long been seen as a leader in waste management as, according to DEEP, the town has the lowest per capita rate of waste in the state, in large part due to its pay-as-you-throw trash collection program. Seen as a best practice, the program, also called unit pricing, has residents pay for the collection of municipal solid waste based on the amount they throw away. It gives residents an economic incentive to waste less. The average person in Stonington generates 340 pounds of waste annually, collected in yellow trash bags.

    "Stonington residents are already conditioned to separating their trash more because they're trying to save space in the yellow bags," said Jill Senior, director of Stonington's Recycling Solid Waste Management Office. "The more you recycle, the less yellow bags you use, so we thought, what's the next thing we can take out of those yellow bags? Heavy wet food. And once we remove the heavy wet food, maybe you don't have to throw your bag out every single week. If it's not as full, it's not as stinky. So we're saving a lot of things there."

    While the program is still new, the town and DEEP are pleased with the results. In the first five weeks of the curbside organics collection, 27 tons of food waste were diverted, with roughly 1,300 households out of 7,666 participating and an average of 7.8 pounds of organic waste per bag.

    The town expects the number of participating households will increase as more people receive their green pails and bags and learn about the option. They think even for those that do compost it will be useful to have a way to recycle meat and dairy products, which most people don’t put in outside compost piles.

    Program is voluntary

    "I'm on the fence about it, as I try to figure out if it will work for our family," Stonington resident Tanya Edwards said.

    While interested in the program, Edwards and her husband already compost a small amount for their garden and have some concerns about how the curbside collection will best work.

    "I have a smallish home and there's not a ton of room for a bucket with food scraps, and unfortunately, my cat keeps getting into it," Edwards said. "I'm reluctant to place it outside my back door because of neighbor cats and raccoons, who may be attracted by food smells, especially as the weather warms."

    While Stonington's program is voluntary, several states, including Vermont, mandate food waste recycling. Connecticut law only requires certain facilities that create a large amount of organic waste to separate and recycle it, but in an effort to reduce the state's waste, lawmakers are considering changes. House Bill 6664 would mandate municipalities at least provide options for food waste recycling by 2028.

    Several other municipalities, including Asonia, Deep River and Woodbury, are also piloting food scrap recycling programs, some with curbside collection and others with drop-off locations.

    "We're really pleased with the results so far," Scharf Dykes said. "But we know it's important to provide education around it for residents trying it for the first time, and we're learning a lot from these pilots.“

    Meriden, another town with a food scrap program, had high school volunteers make social media posts and videos about the program, and haulers provided door-to-door engagement.

    In Stonington, Senior and the town are trying to make it simple for residents while also addressing concerns around the bags smelling (adding a bit of baking soda Senior said, can help with that) and animals getting into the bins -- the town believes the containers when fitted with the lids securely should solve that problem.

    "There are a lot of variables but we're slowly getting the word out," Senior said. "I think we're going to see more and more places separating food."

    While the grant was only for one year, Senior said most of the cost of the program was upfront in buying and distributing the bins to residents and that if they can show the program is successful in diverting food waste, the next step would likely be to expand to eventually include businesses and schools.

    "The most interesting thing about the program is that it's made me look closely at how much food scraps we throw out, and I'm trying to be more conscious about using them," Edwards said.

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