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State seeking to jumpstart recycling, composting in state

After fifth-grader Nalyce Dudley poured a bucket of banana peels, half-eaten tomato slices and ribbons of lettuce into the large rectangular bin at the edge of the field at her school, classmate Rakina Andre shoveled a couple of pitch forks of wood chips on top.

“This year, everybody in the school is composting,” Beth Hanlon, special education teacher who oversees the separation of food, paper and plastic in the cafeteria of the Moriarty Environmental Science Magnet School in Norwich, said last week. “We’ve cut down our garbage by half.”

With fifth graders supervising, all 406 students at the school practice the daily ritual of separating scraps of uneaten fruits and vegetables for compost from the napkins, paper dishes and milk cartons for recycling, and the uneaten meatballs and bread crusts destined for the regular garbage. Once the decay is complete, the rich brown compost that emerges is added to the school’s gardens. Lessons about the composting process, recycling and reducing waste are incorporated into environmental science lessons.

“Last spring when we put our first batch of compost into the garden, the kids were just blown away,” Hanlon said.

The school’s emphasis on composting, recycling and reducing waste is one the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would like to become commonplace everywhere from schools to businesses to homes around Connecticut. In response to the passage of a 2014 state law setting a goal for 60 percent of the waste generated in the state to be recycled or composted by 2024, DEEP has launched two recent initiatives to start moving toward that ambitious target.

“Our recycling rate is now about 30 percent,” said Lee Sawyer, project manager for DEEP’s solid waste initiatives. “We want to enhance recycling at the curb, and also provide technologies that extract more value from recyclables.”

In one of those initiatiatives, DEEP last week released a draft request for proposals to modernize the state’s largest trash-to-energy incinerator, the publicly owned Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford (formerly known as the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority, or CRRA).

The goal, said Sawyer, is a major makeover of 27-year-old incinerator and its companion recycling and waste transfer facilities, which handle about one-quarter to one-third of all the trash generated in the state. Instead of burning most of the trash it receives to produce electricity, incineration at MIRA would be reduced in favor of anaerobic digesters that convert food waste into compost, enhanced recycling capabilities, channeling more items toward reuse technologies and other new approaches to waste handling.

DEEP is receiving public comments on the draft request for proposals through Oct. 27, and plans to issue a final request for proposals later this fall. Finalists would be selected by spring, with a winning bid chosen in 2017. The selected developer would then have five years to complete construction and changes at the MIRA facilities.

“We want to move the ball forward on waste technology,” said Thomas Kirk, president of MIRA, adding that the intent is to foster private sector development and financing of the project. “I expect a lot of different technologies to be proposed. The request for proposals will be as flexible and non-restrictive as possible, to ensure we don’t keep out any technologies.”

In southeastern Connecticut, only Lyme and Old Lyme are among the 50 towns that send their trash to the MIRA plant. Twelve other towns in the region send their trash to the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority incinerator in Preston, a privately owned facility operated by Covanta Energy.

Sawyer said that while DEEP’s effort to remake the MIRA plant will not directly impact operations at the SCRRRA plant or the other privately run incinerators in the state, the agency is hoping the process will influence what happens there.

“We’re hoping this will become a model for the other incinerators in the state,” he said. “We want to demonstrate the potential” for new trash processing technologies that are both economical and environmentally advanced.

Dave Aldridge, executive director of the SCRRRA plant, doesn’t expect the push for changes at the MIRA plant will affect the Preston incinerator, at least not in the near future. The Preston plant, he said, is a couple of years younger and uses more advanced, efficient technology and is less costly to operate, so there’s no economic motivation to do anything different now.

SCRRA’s board, which is made up of representatives of the 12 towns that use the incinerator, has discussed what the next generation of the plant might look like, however. But whatever ultimately emerges, he said, would probably require that the trash continue to be handled locally for both economic and environmental reasons.

“Any change would be quite a ways down the road,” he said. “An awful lot of the trash industry is dictated by logistics. Hauling trash over long distances isn’t good for the environment either.”

But, he added, SCRRRA is doing its part to help the state reduce waste, with education and outreach programs to encourage recycling, among other initiatives.

John Phetteplace, president of SCRRRA’s board of directors and solid waste manager for Stonington, said the board is currently focused on reaching a new contract with Covanta to replace the one set to expire in 2017. The new contract, he said, isn’t expected to bring major changes to the operation.

“Our plant is in good shape,” he said.

He added that while recycling is a laudable practice, there are economic disincentives to increasing the amount that’s recycled.

“The recycling market isn’t very strong right now,” he said.

In the two local towns that are part of the MIRA system, leaders are watching how the effort to retool the incinerator and associated facilities could impact local trash collection. Sawyer said the project, whatever it becomes, isn’t expected to increase the $62-per-ton cost towns currently pay, because the new equipment would extract more value from the trash through recycling and reprocessing instead of setting it on fire.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said her town isn’t waiting for the outcome of DEEP’s process to begin finding ways to reduce the amount it sends to the incinerator. Toward that end, the town recently set up a solid waste and recycling review committee, she said.

“Our trash numbers have been reducing, because people are recycling more,” she said. “We’re going to go to picking up recyclables every week, instead of every two weeks.”

In Lyme, First Selectman Ralph Eno is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the MIRA project, expressing doubts about whether private developers will come forward. He also doubts that the state’s goal of recycling and composting 60 percent of all trash is attainable.

“It’s questionable whether there will be any takers out there,” he said. “I don’t think there are any really viable alternatives to the mass burn technology.”

In addition to the MIRA initiative, DEEP also this month announced the creation of the RecycleCT Foundation, a group that will promote recycling through grants to schools, businesses and households. Its first round of grants are being offered to schools. The grants can be used for field trips, assemblies, staff education, equipment for recycling, reusable dishes and silverware and composting equipment.

At Moriarty School, the availability of the grants comes at the right time. To take its trash reduction emphasis to the next level, Hanlon said she and other staff are working with cafeteria crews to figure out how to cut garbage output, including eliminating the use of paper dishware.

“We’d like to purchase reusable, washable salad bowls,” she said.

Twitter: @BensonJudy




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