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Conn. community tries recycling food waste

Jan Ellen Spiegel

Connecticut has struggled for years to cut its amount of trash by increasing recycling. It turns out food waste and other organics account for the single biggest category of trash and about a third of the waste stream. Finding new ways to deal with food waste has been a slow go – but that might be changing.

(Read Jan Ellen Spiegel's story in the Connecticut Mirror on the the composting pilot here).

Lunchtime at the Village Store in Bridgewater, Connecticut and chef Damian Krieg is doing what he generally does. But a big bowl of half-made coleslaw and an onion tell a new story. He throws them into a compost heap.

Since April, instead of dumping the cores of onions, the ends of carrots or even the paper towel Krieg uses to clean them up in the trash, he’s been putting them into a small bucket under his work station.

"The baker uses one upstairs, and just before she leaves she brings her bag down here, we combine them with that," said Krieg. "Sometimes we do have to empty them twice day."

kitchen waste
Credit Jan Ellen Spiegel
The food waste container at the Village Store in Bridgewater

They go into a large barrel out back and on Friday mornings its contents get picked up by a trash hauler and taken to New Milford a few miles away to be made into compost.

Other states and even big cities like San Francisco, New York and Toronto are doing this but tiny Bridgewater is Connecticut’s first residential curbside food waste pickup program. It covers all food – not just the fruits and veggies in backyard compost piles. It’s a six month pilot – the brainchild of Jen Iannucci. She’s the director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority that oversees trash and recycling for 11 communities, including Bridgewater. She got to thinking that if Connecticut is going to reach its goal of 60 percent recycling by 2024, the state would have to do something about food waste.

"And it just sort of clicked," said Iannucci. "This is like the perfect situation to have a pilot  program."

Only about 10 percent of Bridgewater’s 1,100 households plus a few small businesses like the Village Store are participating.

"I’m realistic," said Ianucci. "I know 120 homes is not enough to keep it viable. It is disappointing that I don’t have more."

Even so, three months into the project, more than five tons of food waste had been hauled off for composting at New Milford Farms, where truth be told, it doesn’t exactly smell wonderful.

As she looked over the a pile of food waste, Joyce Bieber, the facility's administrator, points to some coconuts and cabbage heads.

"The material that’s coming in has been very clean, very little contamination," she said.

That means no plastic wrapping or rubber bands. Even so, a pile of compost in the next, far less smelly, barn is still dotted with those little stickers that go on produce.

Credit Jan Ellen Spiegel
Produce stickers in the compost

"That’s the last thing that we’ve just got to figure out how to get that out as a contaminant," said Bieber.

It’s only one of many problems a program like Bridgewater’s will have to become permanent or be duplicated in other cities and towns in Connecticut. For starters – there’s the money thing. For the pilot project, folks using the service don’t pay extra because New Milford Farms and trash hauler All American Waste are doing it as freebies. That’s not exactly sustainable, but All American’s director of operations - Eric Fredericksen – says it’s worth it temporarily even with the $1000 a month he figures he’s losing.

"To dedicate some resources to a pilot program out there seemed a pretty good way to test how’s it going to work," he said.

Fredericksen says an equally big problem is what to do with the food waste. Right now there are only three compost facilities in the state. Aside from New Milford there’s a small one in Danbury and another in Ellington – all far from where most of Connecticut’s food waste is generated.

Credit HRRA
Curbside pickup in the Bridgewater pilot program

"To try to move tons of material to the other side of the state is a very expensive thing, and quite frankly not a very environmentally friendly thing either."

Help may be on the way in the form of something called an anaerobic digester. It can take food waste and turn it into electricity. Three years after a Connecticut started a program to build some - four are finally in the approval process. All are more centrally located.

All the activity around recycling food waste is making Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee very happy.

“It’s still in the early stages," said Klee, "but we’re seeing exactly what we had hoped for. When the infrastructure is there, towns will start taking advantage of it. And we’re going to try to find ways to market, promote and educate to get more towns excited and involved.”

Credit Jan Ellen Spiegel
A container for food waste pickup in Bridgewater

Which is why all eyes are on tiny Bridgewater. Jen Iannucci says by separating out food waste for the pilot program her own family of six has cut its trash from a bag a day to a bag a week. But she has concerns about a future in which people will have to start paying for the service.

“I am afraid it will just have been a pilot program that was this great thing that no longer exists,” said Ianucci.

But over at the Village Store, manager Greg Bollard is optimistic.

“I don’t think if they had to pay a extra few dollars per month it would dissuade them one way or another," said Bollard. "This is not difficult, doesn’t have to be a huge budget item & it’s just a matter of people vesting & doing the right thing.  So let’s do it.”

He plans to expand his food waste bins from just the kitchen to the trash his restaurant customers throw out too.