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Could 'Pay As You Throw' Be The Future Of Connecticut's Trash?

Hartford's MIRA facility has said it will close by July 2022, renewing urgency for towns searching for a way to reduce the amount of waste residents put in the trash.
Cloe Poisson
Connecticut Mirror
Hartford's MIRA facility has said it will close by July 2022, renewing urgency for towns searching for a way to reduce the amount of waste residents put in the trash.

A coalition of 74 cities and towns met this week to discuss the future of the state’s trash. The discussions come as the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority announced it will close its Hartford trash-to-energy plant by July 2022. That closure has some municipal leaders asking a big question about our garbage: Should residents pay for each bag they throw out?

When the Hartford plant stops burning trash next year, a key location responsible for annually incinerating hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage will instead ship massive amounts of trash to out-of-state landfills. 

That’s shaping up to be a pricey proposition for taxpayers, especially as the Northeast’s landfill capacity is anticipated to only get smaller over the next five years.

So municipal leaders are working today to find ways to get residents to throw out less stuff.

Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told members of the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM) on Monday that unit-based pricing, also called “pay as you throw,” could be one solution. 

“These types of programs shift waste disposal costs to the user,” Dykes said. “Just like utility charges for electricity and for water. And this provides the price signal, if you will, to individuals, to residents, to be aware of the cost of disposal.” 

A handful of Connecticut towns, and nearby cities like Worcester, Massachusetts, do this already. In Worcester, residents buy official city trash bags at stores and use those on trash day. 

Proponents of pay-as-you-throw say it can reduce overall waste and save towns money. 

Dykes said it’s also more equitable, taking residential trash expenses out of general property tax obligations and instead linking those costs directly to individual consumer behavior.

But some municipal leaders who have tried unit-based pricing said morphing shared tax obligations or fixed fees into a direct “per-bag” charge that customers pay every time they want to throw something out can be a tough sell.

“You don’t think about it as a utility, like you do with electricity or water,” said West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor. 

West Hartford tried a pay-as-you-throw program several years ago, but Cantor said only about one-third of the town’s residents were fully open to the idea. “A third were, I would say, open to the possibility, but not ready. And a third were absolutely, adamantly, opposed,” Cantor said. 

Town leadership decided to take a pause.

“We felt that if we pushed it too hard, it might backfire,” Cantor said. “We really wanted to have the public’s understanding that this was important to the community … the cost of disposing of trash is real. And our municipalities are going to see increasing percentages of their budget going to waste disposal.”

Right now, West Hartford sends its trash to Covanta’s waste-to-energy facility in Bristol. But Cantor said the closure of Hartford’s MIRA facility will accelerate the strain on Connecticut’s entire waste infrastructure, which could translate into higher disposal fees for everyone.

Because of that, she said revisiting pay-as-you-throw is “definitely on the table,” but she didn’t specify any immediate timelines. 

“I think it’s the one model that has shown proven results in trash reduction. But the other things need to be in place,” Cantor said, adding she would like to see grants for recycling coordinators to help with public outreach and broader state support for residential food scrap collection. 

The CCSMM met virtually Monday as the legislature came back into session last week. The panel finalized a list of legislative recommendations on Connecticut’s trash future, which includes unit-based pricing and residential food scrap collection. It’s unclear what, if any, measures the state legislature will take up.

Dykes said Monday that many towns her office spoke with that adopted pay-as-you-throw did it only because their local budgets were at a breaking point. 

“Where folks could see that there were going to be trade-offs of reduced budget availability for things like education,” Dykes said, “… if they didn’t move forward to taking action to reduce disposal costs.”

And with the MIRA plant closing, some town leaders Monday expressed renewed urgency and optimism about the idea.

“I have to say that, going into this, I was terrified about unit-based pricing, having heard all the stories,” said Rocky Hill Mayor Lisa Marotta. “But I will say that all of the education that I’ve received as a result of this coalition has really brought me to understand how important this is.”

Marotta said regional collaboration could be one way for some towns to roll out broader reforms to the state’s waste infrastructure and, hopefully, drive down disposal costs.

“Rocky Hill is certainly interested in exploring this,” Marotta said. “I think there’s strength in numbers. So, if we could get together as interested municipalities and explore together, we’ll be that much closer, as opposed to waiting and seeing what’s going to happen.”

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.