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As the state faces a waste disposal crisis, promoting proper household recycling has become an increasingly important goal for New Haven.

Because the state is reaching its capacity for waste disposal, attention is now being focused on reducing the quantity of waste overall. One way the state has addressed this issue is to encourage residents to recycle more — and also to recycle correctly. New Haven has followed suit, putting several programs in place to educate residents on the importance of recycling.

“We are facing a waste disposal crisis in the state of Connecticut,” Katie Dykes, commissioner for Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told the News. “It really prompted us to take a look inside the trash can … It turns out that a significant portion of what we’re sending to waste energy facilities or landfills every year can be recycled or composted.” 

According to Dykes, the state has traditionally disposed of waste by converting it to energy through incineration plants. There are currently five such plants across Connecticut. Pierre Barbour, executive director of the New Haven Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, said that New Haven mainly uses the plants in Bridgeport or Lisbon to dispose of its non-recyclable waste. 

However, the plants are all at maximum capacity — with no current plans to increase the number of plants, Barbour said. In fact, the number of plants will decrease in the coming years as Hartford’s waste to energy plant is set to close in July 2022. 

With the plants either maxed out or shut down, the state will have to rely on exporting its waste to landfills in other states. Dykes said that there were both environmental costs associated with being reliant on landfills as well as economic costs as cities will have to pay higher bills to transport their waste. 

“Our goal is to respond to the closure of these facilities by moving forward towards a more sustainable future as opposed to moving backwards where we export the environmental impacts of our waste disposal to communities outside of Connecticut,” Dykes said. 

Dykes said that one especially effective way to mitigate the amount of waste being produced is to recycle more. While recycling is mandatory by law in Connecticut, she said there are still materials ending up in the trash cans that could be recycled instead. 

According to the New Haven Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, New Haveners put about 17 percent of their waste in recycling bins. The number has remained constant for several years.

Barbour partly attributed this to the lack of messaging on both the city and state level about the importance of recycling.  

“There are generations that have yet to see a recycling commercial,” Barbour said. “I’m seeing them more often now, but we haven’t done a great job of educating our young people in the school systems who in turn bring the recycling message home to parents.”

Dykes said it was also important to have people understand what to put into the recycling bins and what should not be recycled. While sometimes individuals do not recycle enough, Dykes said that she has also seen the opposite — individuals engage in “wish cycling” and try to recycle as much as possible. Dykes said erring on the side of recycling too much contributes to contamination, which lowers the value of the commodity in the recycling markets.

After recycling materials are collected and taken to the transfer station, the recyclable materials are sorted and baled together to be sold to different companies. Sherill Baldwin, who works in the Sustainable Materials Management department of CT DEEP, explained that when non-recyclable materials are mixed with recyclable materials, a commodity is contaminated and makes it harder for recycling facilities to sell their products. A 2015 waste audit found that 14 to 19 percent of the incoming materials into recycling facilities were contaminated and put into the trash.

Kathie Hurley, who works at New Haven’s Department of Public Works, said because New Haven has a large population of people moving in and out, “constant education” on the state’s recycling requirements was necessary. For example, she mentioned that some people coming in from other states are used to recycling styrofoam which can not be recycled according to Connecticut rules.

Hurley said that before the pandemic, the city and volunteers would go out into the neighborhoods to talk to residents about recycling. She said that while the programs have not been as active in the past year, she thinks they will “gear up” again in the near future. 

“We all went out and talked,” Hurley said. “We did programs at schools. We did programs at any non-profit that would listen to us.”

One program that has continued on according to Hurley is the neighborhood “sweep” where once or twice a month city departments would move through New Haven’s neighborhoods, reporting on quality issues and talking with residents. She said the department officials carry information with them and answer the residents’ questions about recycling.

Hurley also mentioned materials that do not go into the recycling bins but should still be recycled such as electronics or textiles. According to the New Haven Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, two million tons of textiles are recycled each year in the U.S. which is the same as removing one million cars from American highways. Hurley said that residents can either drop off these items at the transfer station or make a bulk appointment for the Department of Public Works to come and pick up the materials.

Dykes explained that other than recycling, there are also other ways to cut down on waste such as through composting. She said a good portion of the city’s waste is organic materials such as yard waste and food scraps.

Connecticut does have compost facilities throughout the state as well as an anaerobic digester where the organic materials can be converted into compost that can rebuild soils or generate renewable natural gas. However, if individuals do not have accessibility to compost facilities, Dykes said that residents can also dedicate a space in their own backyards to set up a composting pile.

“Food scraps are just gold when you think about their value,” Dykes said. “We should not be landfilling or burning organic materials.”

In 2016, Connecticut set a goal to divert 60 percent of the state’s waste from landfills by 2024 through reducing waste, increasing reuse and recycling and focusing on waste conversion technologies. However, Barbour called this goal “aggressive” and said that he thought Connecticut was unlikely to meet this deadline. Still, he said there are other ways to measure progress in the state’s recycling efforts.

“But I think as long as we can show and demonstrate marked improvement in some of the programs that we have got going, that would be great,” Barbour said.

Connecticut’s first law mandating recycling went into effect in 1991.

SAI RAYALA
Sai Rayala writes about the climate and environmental efforts in New Haven. Originally from Powell, Ohio, she is a first-year in Timothy Dwight College planning to major in History.