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Solving the food waste issue might be the linchpin to Connecticut’s waste disposal crisis

Dave Aldridge, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority and John Phetteplace, director of solid waste in Stonington, in front of their test pile of food waste compost.
Jan Ellen Spiegel
CT Mirror
Dave Aldridge, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority and John Phetteplace, director of solid waste in Stonington, in front of their test pile of food waste compost.

Getting organic food waste out of the waste stream won’t solve the Connecticut's waste disposal problems, but it’s widely recognized those problems won’t be solved without it.

The state and some local governments hopes to haul trash to over a dozen different pilot projects to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up at incinerators and landfills.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with Jan Ellen Spiegel, who covers energy, environment and climate change for CT Mirror, about her article, “Efforts to get food out of the waste stream finding more support," as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Jan, you're write that officials believe solving the food waste issue is the linchpin to Connecticut's waste disposal crisis. Could you describe the crisis and why food waste is a problem?

JES: Well, there's a multiple level crisis in terms of how we get rid of our trash broadly. We have two trash-to-energy plants, one of which is about to get shut down. So the question becomes, what do you do with your waste? Generally, waste is also fairly expensive to get rid of, because you pay by weight. The more a town dumps into whatever the waste facility is, whether it's a trash to energy, landfill, whatever, the more you have to pay. So generally, it's felt, well, if you can get things out of that waste stream in some other fashion, then you will be able to pay less for what you do have to dump and one of the biggest things that literally weighs everything down is food waste, food waste, think about what you throw away, when you're throwing away food. It's heavy, it's wet, and therefore it's going to cost a lot. And that wet portion of it, since we send a lot of our overall waste into a trash-to-energy plant, it gets burned. Well, think about wet food, it doesn't burn very well. So that becomes an absolute perfect thing to get rid of. And there are other things that that food waste can be used for that are actually pretty beneficial. So it's not going to solve the whole crisis. But you're definitely not going to solve the crisis if you don't start getting the food waste out.

WSHU: So the solution is getting the food waste out. And that means food composting?

JES: There are a number of things that can be done. Number one would be literally people at home composting food that isn't always practical. Another thing to do would be to use it to also form energy. There is one plant in the state of Connecticut. It's an anaerobic digester, and it's called Quantum Bio Power. It's in Southington, and it turns food waste into energy through internal combustion, it's not really combustion, it works like a cow's stomach works, it turns it into energy.

WSHU: The infrastructure for that isn't that quite expensive?

JES: It's expensive. But it is also fairly practical. Where the state has had problems with, including with quantum has been permitting. And that plant almost never came to be it took so long to get permitted. The problem is for the state of Connecticut is because we don't have a broad state policy that sets up an infrastructure for doing these sorts of things. A company like Quantum is not going to be able to get funding to go out and build another plan. They want to make sure that the stuff that would go into that plant exists and can get there. So it becomes a little bit of a chicken and egg process. What we've also got around the state are literally composting facilities that turn food waste into compost, which can be used as you know, fertilizer and gardens and whatever it has, it has a use. Again, the policy that is in place is very, very, very minimal. It only applies to commercial food waste. And what we've got happening now is cities and towns on their own have been realizing this is a smart thing to get out of our waste stream. Let's just do it ourselves.

WSHU: You give the example of one particularly regional body called the Southeastern Connecticut Recovery Authority. Taking this on, could you just talk a little bit about what they're doing? And if that's a successful model to follow?

JES: They have run a little pilot program. The shorthand for those guys is SCRRRA. They're 12 towns there. And they decided they were not going to wait around for the state anymore to essentially come up with a way to deal with food waste; they were going to try something on their own. So they set up a pilot project of literally composting food waste that they had delivered to them at a site that happened to be in Stonington. It wasn't Stonington’s food waste, to see how well it would work. It took them, I think four or five times as long just to get the permit for the pilot project as it took to run the pilot project. In the end, they got a nice big pile of food waste compost that they will start distributing. And they are in the process of trying to find a permanent place to put a larger composting facility, that all the towns within SCRRRA can then bring there that would literally cut estimates are anywhere from 25 to 30%, of what these towns then have to put into the overall waste stream because it will be going to food waste. So that would literally cut their dumping price of the other trash by as much as a third. It's one example of towns doing it on their own. There are all kinds of different examples all over the state, which again, is being done in the absence of a statewide policy on this specifically.

WSHU: But we do have statewide policy, we have a law, the 2011 Law, about commercial food waste, a ban on commercial food waste. Wouldn't that be a model to use for the rest of our food waste.

JES: It has a lot of caveats in it, which have capped businesses that might otherwise participate in it from having to. The biggest caveats are the amount of food waste a company generates. It's lowered over time. So it's about a half ton a week, but it's a half ton and not or, and you have to be 20 miles from a certified composting site. The composting sites in this state are way out on the perimeters of the state Ellington, New Milford, Danbury. Most of the major cities and towns are more than 20 miles away, so they don't have to dump any of the commercial food waste plus, plus, there are exceptions for all kinds of companies. One of the biggest exceptions is for schools. So take a place like Greenwich, they're more than 20 miles from anything. So none of the food operations there have to get rid of the food waste. So it hasn't really worked all that well.

WSHU: And you know, Greenwich has a lot of restaurants.

JES: Yes!

WSHU: Well, so where do we go from here? It's the linchpin to solving the problem. The state seems to feel that it's a local issue. So what's the future?

JES: Well, it may be some regional groups doing kind of what SCRRRA has done and pulling together and saying, “We can't wait for the state. We're just going to do this on our own”. It may be the state figures out a way to do a broader, more stringent policy, in which case towns will have to start doing this. It may be that the market takes over and it just becomes so cost prohibitive to dump trash that they that cities and towns will end up doing this anyway, a place to look would be Vermont. That state followed the Connecticut model for commercial food waste, doing their own law in 2012. Have done stepped downs, all the way and as of last year, complete food waste banned in the state of Vermont. So it can be done. I mean, it's a smaller state with smaller population wise.

WSHU: Do we have the political will to get it done in Connecticut and anytime soon?

JES: We have home rule in this state, whether we have the political will or we don't have the political will, it would be a very, very difficult move.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.