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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Connecticut sends its trash west. Here’s what lawmakers want you to do instead.

    A proposal to tackle waste in Connecticut could radically change how residents handle food scraps.

    Senate Bill 191 would make food scrap recycling mandatory. Under the proposal, every municipality must establish programs by Jan.1, 2028, that require residents to separate food scraps, food processing residues and organic material from their trash for recycling at authorized composting facilities and other locations.

    The bill would also add residentially generated food scraps to the state’s list of “Items Designated for Recycling” and require large waste generators to donate edible food before it becomes compost.

    After passing through the Environment Committee last month in a 23 to 11 vote that fell on party lines, the proposal now awaits a vote in the Senate.

    Here is a look at the food waste bill, its potential impact on people and the environment, and why some critics are concerned about the proposed mandate.

    What problem does this address?

    Connecticut makes a lot of trash, but right now, there is not enough space to keep it.

    The 2022 closure of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, also known as the MIRA waste-to-energy facility in Hartford, launched the state into what many describe as a crisis. Today, Connecticut has no choice but to export much of its trash to out-of-state facilities.

    According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Connecticut ships 875,000 tons of municipal solid waste to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. This tonnage represents 40% of the state’s municipal solid waste, according to the department.

    At the same time, Connecticut pays to incinerate or landfill 500,000 tons of food scraps each year, according to DEEP.

    In testimony submitted to the committee, DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said the organic material that makes up 22% of Connecticut’s municipal solid waste, “is valuable if diverted from disposal,” but she said that currently, only 5% of the state’s food scraps go to composting and anaerobic digestion facilities.

    At an Environment Committee meeting, lawmakers who spoke in favor of the food waste bill said they believe the legislation will decrease Connecticut’s reliance on out-of-state waste disposal.

    “We’ve been hearing for years about the problem of food waste in the municipal solid waste stream,” Rep. Mike Demicco said. “We talk about it every year in front of this committee, ‘What are we gonna do about it?’…Now we have an opportunity to actually do something about it.”

    How will the bill impact hunger?

    Connecticut is in the midst of a paradox, according to DEEP — tons of food end up in trash while thousands of residents experience hunger.

    In 2019 approximately 12% of Connecticut’s population was food insecure, according to research from Feeding America. More recent studies suggest that the state’s food insecurity rate has grown significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2022 survey by Data Haven, 17% of adults in Connecticut reported experiencing food insecurity in their households.

    Connecticut’s food waste bill would expand the state’s Commercial Organics Recycling Law to mandate the diversion of safe and edible items to food banks and rescue programs before it becomes compost.

    Under the bill entities that produce more than 26 tons of source-separated organic materials must adopt, formalize and streamline food donation policies by Jan. 1, 2025.

    It would require wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, processors, supermarkets, resorts, hospitals, correctional facilities, educational institutions, and spaces that meet the 26-ton threshold to partner with at least two food relief organizations. Additionally, the companies must educate employees and third-party vendors about the relationship between the food distribution process and waste.

    Over the last five years, Haven’s Harvest has rescued 7.1 million pounds of food in and around the greater New Haven area, according to the nonprofit’s co-founder and Executive Director Lori Martin.

    The organization said it uses a hyperlocal model to transport unused food from grocery stores, restaurants, universities, public schools, event spaces and other partners to other nonprofits, faith-based programs, senior centers, day cares, subsidized housing sites, clinics and other locations.

    In testimony submitted to the Environment Committee, Martin said between 80 and 90% of the food recovered by food rescues is fresh produce or nutritious prepared food items. She said returning these items to the food system alleviates food insecurity and “nutrition anxiety.”

    Martin emphasized the idea that “recovered food is a community resource.” She added that fostering relationships between large waste generators and food rescues “is good policy.”

    “These partners understand the value of the recovered food for their communities. The food stretches the budgets for individuals, families and the nonprofit partners,” Martin said. “We need the food that is now being tossed into the waste stream as being inedible. It’s still quite edible.”

    How will the bill impact the environment?

    Proponents say the food waste bill will slash emissions of harmful greenhouse gasses and return nutrients to the soil.

    If the state diverts 40% of its food scraps, DEEP projects that the food waste program would reduce Connecticut’s carbon dioxide emissions by 330,522 metric tons.

    “This is equivalent to the emissions reductions from taking nearly 15,000 cars off the road for five years,” Dykes said.

    The diversion would also significantly reduce emissions of methane — a greenhouse house gas that has more than 28 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide according to the EPA.

    “Due to its quick decay rate, food waste in landfills contributes to more methane emissions than any other landfilled material. An estimated 58% of the fugitive methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills are from landfilled food waste,” Dykes said.

    Lori Brown the executive director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters said the bill would help the state fulfill its legal obligation to cut 45% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

    “After throwing leftovers in the trash, most people don’t think twice about where this food goes. But whether wasted food is landfilled or incinerated, it generates toxic, climate-changing emissions,” Brown said in testimony submitted to the committee. “Keeping food waste out of landfills and incinerators can greatly assist in reducing these emissions. With a strong food waste prevention law, Connecticut can fight food insecurity, curb toxic emissions, and save our communities money on trash disposal.”

    What is the fiscal impact?

    Supporters of the bill argue that food scrap diversion programs could help towns save money by reducing tipping fees, the cost municipalities pay for waste disposal.

    According to a report by the Office of Fiscal Analysis, the average tipping fee in Connecticut is $110 per ton of municipal solid waste and $65 per ton of organic waste.

    Dykes said DEEP estimates that savings could exceed $9 million if municipalities divert more than 40% of their food scraps.

    Rep. Mary Mushinsky said removing food scraps from the solid waste stream would decrease the volume of shipments to out-of-state landfills, reducing costs.

    “The more we can take out of the waste stream, it does not have to go to Ohio, the better it is for our taxpayers,” Mushinsky said ahead of a committee vote on the bill.

    Despite these benefits, many say organic waste recycling programs would ultimately come at a cost to municipalities.

    During the public hearing, supporters and opponents of the legislation criticized the bill for its lack of state funding to support the initiatives.

    “How will municipalities pay for this, other than by raising property taxes?” Lindsay Seti, an advocacy manager for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said in testimony opposing the legislation.

    Seti and others said they are concerned that the solid waste collection industry and municipalities do not have the infrastructure to implement organic waste separation and collection programs.

    “The cost and logistical difficulties of establishing a food scrap diversion program are staggering,” Seti said “Municipalities cannot and should not do this on their own. The state must be a partner in this endeavor.”

    What other concerns are there?

    Senate Republican Leader Stephen Harding, a ranking member of the Environment Committee, said that he does not support requiring constituents to separate food scraps by 2028.

    “I understand that we may be trying to move in that direction, I know that we’ve moved in that direction as it relates to large food producers, but this is going to be coming to every household and home in the state of Connecticut with the passage of this legislation,” Harding said during a debate of the bill.

    “It comes down to a lack of a plan here of how we are going to implement this,” Harding added.

    Rep. Francis Cooley said he believes “a statewide mandate will probably create more problems than it will solve,” given the varying needs and population densities in municipalities throughout the state.

    Cooley and other Republican lawmakers expressed concern that food scrap separation could exacerbate issues with nuisance wildlife like bears in rural settings and rats in urban settings.

    “I think this is a problem that could be dealt with on a local level much better than at a state level in which we’re coming up with a blanket policy,” Cooley said.

    Other lawmakers said they would like to see more data about the efficacy of existing pilot programs, which they claimed have not been successful in all towns.

    “My understanding is all the pilot programs, but one, have essentially failed,” Rep. Tom O’Dea said. “Not having seen any reports on it, I just believe we shouldn’t mandate this on municipalities, particularly at this point.”

    Committee Chair Rep. Joseph Gresko said that between 20 and 25 municipalities have started food scrap programs. While he said some have discontinued their participation, he said that pilots in Middletown, the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority and other areas have seen success.

    Gresko and other supporters said they believe a 2028 implementation date will give municipalities enough time to set up food scrap programs.

    “This is a path toward diverting some of the organic waste out of the municipal solid waste stream,” Gresko said. “We have now four years, if this goes through, to continue to work out the kinks and to establish a necessary infrastructure for food waste diversion. I feel this is the next, logical step.”

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