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Is Connecticut recycling going into the trash? Some haulers caught in the act

Single-stream recycling is separated and baled for sale at the Murphy Road Recycling in Berlin, where MIRA sends its "blue-bin" materials.
Yehyun Kim
/
CT Mirror
Single-stream recycling is separated and baled for sale at the Murphy Road Recycling in Berlin, where MIRA sends its "blue-bin" materials.

On the day after Christmas, an investigator tailed a garbage truck on a shoreline residential route. From a distance, he photographed the truck driver emptying trash and recycling containers into the same load, bound for an incinerator.

On Friday, an investigator recorded video of another driver employed by the same hauler doing the same thing, then dumping a mixed load of trash and recyclables at a transfer station in Essex.

The surveillance photos were taken by one of four investigators employed by the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, the quasi-public entity whose future is uncertain. Its officials described the surveillance but declined to identify the hauler.

If MIRA disappears, a likely consequence of the closure last year of the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford that was its primary responsibility, so might the only investigative unit exclusively focused on trash and recycling.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, while committed to diverting far more waste from disposal to recycling, is not in the business of monitoring garbage trucks.

“That is definitely true,” said Jen Perry, chief of DEEP’s materials management and compliance assurance bureau. “That would be very resource-intensive, to have someone follow along behind the truck and look at every stop that they make.”

DEEP has five field staffers working on compliance with waste laws and regulations, as well as eight office-based enforcement personnel, Perry said.

“We have to sort of prioritize how we utilize our staff, recognizing that these are the same staff of a division that are charged with ensuring compliance with hazardous waste laws where we have a significant risk, potentially, to the public and the environment,” Perry said.

With a statewide bottle-deposit system and single-stream recycling in every community, Connecticut recycles slightly more than half its trash, the fifth-best performance in the U.S. behind Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon.

But officials at MIRA say DEEP needs to be more aggressive in regulating the flow of trash and recyclables to protect both the environment and the finances of a trash disposal infrastructure expected to only get more expensive.

In the trash business, tonnage is money.

MIRA no longer is paid to burn trash to generate power in Hartford, but it still acts as a middleman for client municipalities by contracting with haulers and recyclers and operating transfer stations in Essex and Torrington.

From Torrington, the trash is shipped to the Keystone landfill in Pennsylvania. From Essex, it goes to Preston, home of one of the four remaining waste-to-energy plants in Connecticut.

MIRA has put-or-pay contracts, meaning it is committed to delivering a certain tonnage or paying a penalty. In other words, MIRA has a financial incentive to know where the trash and recycling are going from its clients.

Depending on commodity markets that dictate the value of recycled plastic, paper and metals, it can be in MIRA’s financial interest to ensure that recyclables are recycled, not burned or buried.

Two years ago, for example, it paid only $3 a ton to get rid of recyclables at a materials recycling facility, or MRF, a tiny fraction of the $95 tipping fee at a burn plant or landfill. With a drop in market prices, the contracted MRF fee paid by MIRA is now north of $90.

Jennifer Heaton-Jones, the executive director the Housatonic Resource Recovery Authority, said the tip fees on recycling at times have exceeded the cost to dump municipal solid waste, or MSW, by $20 a ton in her area.

“I personally witnessed a hauler dumping his split-body truck of recycling and MSW into the MSW pit” at a transfer station, she said. “Clearly he knowingly did that, but why? He did that because the market rate for recycling is so low.”

The hauler received a notice of violation from the transfer station and a letter from Housatonic warning that its registration could be suspended, Heaton-Jones said.

Employees at the Murphy Road Recycling in Berlin categorize recyclables.
Yehyun Kim
/
CT Mirror
Employees at the Murphy Road Recycling in Berlin categorize recyclables.

Will Healey, a spokesman for DEEP, said the agency does not routinely get notices of violations involving waste and recycling haulers.

Heaton-Jones, whose authority covers Danbury and 13 smaller communities in western Connecticut, said she believed such incidents were relatively rare and more likely to happen when commodity prices are low and haulers must pay more recycling facilities to take the material.

“Your material is getting recycled,” she said. “Because of this current situation of pricing, yes, we do have some bad actors. We do have some haulers who are doing this because they are trying to save money.”

The issue is called “flow control,” and Daley said it will be crucial when Connecticut commits to the next generation of waste-disposal technology, something the state began to explore in January through a request-for-information process.

“Once those options are decided, we have to have the ability — the state has to have the ability — to make sure that the waste gets there and gets paid for. Otherwise, the project won’t come to life,” Daley said.

The four surviving waste-to-energy plants rely on what customers pay them to take municipal trash and the price they get for selling energy to the regional grid. The revenue split historically has been 60% tipping fees and 40% electricity sales.

Mark Daley, the chief executive of MIRA, said the notion that some blue-bin material would be tossed as trash was “infuriating.” But just as concerning, he said, was the state’s seeming disinterest in ensuring that contracted trash ends up in the right place.

Katie Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection, said Daley is correct in asserting that flow control will be essential to financing new projects, whether they be waste-to-energy plants, facilities that turn food scraps into compost and biogas, or other technologies.

But those projects are years away.

MIRA has a financial interest now in assuring that contracted waste is delivered to its transfer stations and that recyclables are separated and delivered under a contract to a highly automated facility in Berlin that separates, bales and sells the recycled materials.

“DEEP, for quite some time now, has not had enforcement personnel on the road. They used to do that,” said Tom Gaffey, the director of recycling and enforcement for MIRA.

Gaffey said MIRA’s surveillance late last year arose from an analysis at the Essex transfer station that showed a sharp drop in tonnage — by half from some towns, more in others.

His team followed haulers taking trash from MIRA towns to non-MIRA facilities, where Gaffey said he believes they found a lower price and were pocketing the difference.

“We did run into cases where haulers were mixing recyclables with trash and delivering it as trash,” he said. “In fact, we have seen haulers do this right in front of people in broad daylight.”

The financial incentive to mix trash and recyclables can be as simple as trying to avoid the cost of a second truck on a route, Gaffey said.

Daley and Gaffey declined to identify the hauler or haulers who either mixed trash and recyclables, delivered to non-MIRA facilities or both.

“We’d rather not identify them right now, because we’re still in the course of our investigation,” Gaffey said. “And, quite frankly, we’re waiting, hoping that DEEP is going to make a referral to the attorney general.”

DEEP staff could not identify any recent enforcement actions that led to penalties assessed on waste haulers.

Brendan Schain, a lawyer with DEEP, said the agency still is evaluating whether to make a referral to the attorney general. If it does, it becomes an action brought on behalf of the commissioner of DEEP, not MIRA.

“MIRA has done a lot of work,” Schain said. “But because it becomes an action, the commissioner versus the defendants, how much of that work do we need to redo? We need to understand everything that they’ve done. We need to have our people in position to serve as resources in that litigation.”

MIRA and the municipalities can sue the haulers.

“Are we uniquely best-positioned to bring this enforcement action about municipal ordinances and, really, MIRA contracts?” Schain said.

Typically, the agency makes referrals to the attorney general when a person or business is not complying with an enforcement order.

“What MIRA is asking us to do is make a referral to the attorney general’s office on the basis of their investigation and on the basis of violations of municipal ordinances, not statutes or regulations administered by the department,” Schain said.

Schain said the question is not the quality of MIRA’s investigation, which he called extensive. No decision has been made on whether to make DEEP part of a case against the haulers.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.