CT Construction Digest Tuesday October 19, 2021
A proposed and much-discussed half-mile-long tunnel to straighten Interstate 84 between Exits 2 and 4 on Danbury's west side is among several options being considered by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT).
But leaders involved in planning the billion-dollar reconstruction of I-84 through Danbury do not consider the tunnel to be a viable part of the project, according to the Connecticut Post.
"We are wrapping up the concept development phase [this] fall and the tunnel is one of the concepts, but we have over 20 that we have looked at, and [the] ones that don't make sense don't go very far," explained Andy Fesenmeyer, CTDOT's project manager for the I-84 Danbury Project. "But we do want to make sure that we have looked at every single option."
By the agency's own assessment, the prospects of cutting a tunnel under University Boulevard would not "reduce congestion or improve mobility on the highway," and therefore "It is recommended that this concept be dismissed from further consideration."
That is good news to state Rep. Bob Godfrey, the dean of Danbury's Hartford delegation.
"This tunnel proposal destroys two neighborhoods, a business community and cuts under Western Connecticut State University," noted Godfrey, who has represented Danbury for 32 years.
"This ain't gonna fly," he told the CTPost online news site.
Why, then, did CTDOT call attention to the tunnel option in a late September tweet, along with two other project concepts?
Fesenmeyer responded by telling the Post that the transportation department wants to be transparent about investigating every option.
"We look at everything. So, we say, ‘What would it look like if we straighten the highway?'" he explained. "We don't want someone to come back to us later and say, ‘You didn't investigate the tunnel option.'"
The design choice is one of three plans currently on the I-84 Danbury Project website to improve the stretch between the New York state line and Exit 8.
While it is yet to be funded by the state Legislature, the I-84 Danbury Project is at least a generation away from completion, the Post reported, although smaller upgrades related to the overall effort could begin later in the decade.
The next public outreach meeting, which has not been scheduled, will likely follow two project meetings this fall. The first was scheduled for Oct. 14 between the project team and Danbury officials, and the second will be with the project advisory committee, a large group of municipal and private sector leaders from the greater community.
The goal is to finish the concept plan by the end of 2022, after which a specific proposal would be developed to be funded, engineered and vetted.
"This is not a simple operation with easy answers — we're talking about billions of dollars and a huge undertaking," Fesenmeyer said, adding that CTDOT estimates were that the construction might not begin until the mid-2040s. "But there could be some early action in the mid-to-late 2020s."
Godfrey said re-engineering of the interstate and its exits was overdue, especially in the area of the Danbury Fair mall.
"The highway came through Danbury in 1963, and professionals have learned a lot in the last 60 years about what's wrong with left-handed exit ramps and the highway being more curvy than straight," he explained. "It was a good design for its time, but that time has passed."
EAST HAVEN — A mixed-income senior housing development in town has been honored by a sustainable building group, according to a release.
The Tyler, WinnDevelopment’s 70-unit project inside a former high school building, was recognized by the Green Building Council and Novogradic “for its innovative approach using state and federal historic tax credits to incorporate the industry’s strictest standard for energy performance in a residential historic adaptive reuse project,” the release said.
The nonprofit council gave the project its 2021 Award of Excellence, the release said, which “honors excellence in green building design and construction that supports the broader goals of using the built to combat climate change within the state of Connecticut and beyond.”
According to the release, The Tyler is expected to use 20 percent less energy than new Energy Star construction, and also avoided “18,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” by reusing the former school.
The housing project also was honored recently with the 2021 Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Award for Historic Rehabilitation, the release said.
“Projects like The Tyler demonstrate the inherent sustainability of adapting historic structures to meet 21st century environmental expectations,” Adam Stein, executive vice president of WinnDevelopment, said in the release. “This award-winning effort would not have been possible without the foresight and support of the Connecticut Department of Housing, Connecticut Housing Finance Agency (CHFA) and the State Historic Preservation Office.”
The Tyler, which is managed by WinnResidential, opened in October 2020, the release said, and had been vacant for almost 21 years after being used as the town’s high school. The “academic core” of the building now houses 67 one-bedroom units and three two-bedroom units, available for a range of incomes, the release said.
BETHEL — A proposal to bring residential and commercial buildings to a Stony Hill Road parcel of land could bring about a zoning change that could be applicable to other parcels along the road.
A new overlay district option is being proposed as part of an application before the Planning and Zoning Commission tied to the former Stony Hill Inn property on Route 6.
The applicant, Upstream Properties LLC, is looking to build residential and commercial buildings on the parcel of vacant Stony Hill Road land between the Copper Square townhouse development and Mountain Laurel Plaza.
Bob Gleason — one of the owners of Upstream Properties — said the proposed Grand Stony Hill Village development would have three apartment buildings towards the rear of the property, two 5,000-square-foot commercial buildings near the road and a pocket park.
As part of its application, the developer is seeking a zoning regulation text amendment that would create a Stony Hill Mixed Use Overlay District option for the Route 6 business zone, intended to increase permissible residential unit density.
For parcels at least five acres in size, up to 20 units per acre would be allowed within the proposed zoning change, compared to 10 units currently permitted in the Route 6 zone.
Each zone proposed would be an independent overlay zoning district, created with the Planning and Zoning Commission’s approval, in order to accomplish a specific purpose.
Attorney Peter Olson said the text amendment would provide a “floating zone” option for applicants looking to develop large parcels in the Route 6 district, and each overlay district would apply an additional layer of regulations and authorized uses in supplementation of the underlying Route 6 zone requirements and provisions.
Each would have “unique and narrowly drawn permitted uses, bulk and dimensional standards and other applicable zoning provisions” in order to “accommodate unique and desirable development that is consistent with the long range, orderly development of Route 6 but that may not be accommodated by the established zoning of the area,” according to the proposed text amendment.
Both commercial and multi-family residential dwellings would be permitted in Stony Hill Mixed Use Overlay Districts as long as they are in locations deemed appropriate by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
There would be land size, frontage and other requirements for utilization of a Stony Hill Mixed Use Overlay District, including that the proposed developments are in accordance with the town’s comprehensive plan.
Olson said a lot of thought into how to accomplish a streamlined process for Stony Hill Mixed Use Overlay Districts.
“What we see right now in the Route 6 zoning district is an approach where every individual developer comes to you and says, ‘We need this one or two small tweaks to the regulations to make our development work for us,’” he said.
Requests that are granted may work for an individual project, Olson said, but not so well for others “The result can be a rather jumbled mess, and that is not great as far as zoning regulations go,” he said.
The proposed SHMUOD approach would simplify the process in a way that maintains the Planning and Zoning Commission’s “ultimate control over whether things can happen,” Olson said, while also letting developers “operate under a streamlined approach.”
It would make the zoning process efficient not only for Upstream Properties’ proposal, he said, but future Route 6 developments as well.
Olson said the process would be similar to the one applicants currently go through when seeking a regulation change, except it would save more time.
“The process (would be) very similar to how things work now if I were to ask you to change the regulations,” Olson said. “It just streamlines it and it changes the order of things a bit to make it a more efficient process for developers and (the commission).”
It would start with an applicant filing to have the SHMUOD applied to a particular piece of property in the Route 6 zoning district
“That’s a map amendment, and they’d bring with that a conceptual plan with quite a bit of detail required,” Olson said.
A developer would be required to itemize ways in which their proposed map and site plan do not comply with Route 6 district zone requirements, he said, and the Planning and Zoning Commission would determine appropriateness.
If approved, the commission would then act to apply the overlay zone to the property and approve the developer’s conceptual site plan.
There is an ongoing Planning and Zoning public hearing on Upstream Properties’ application, which is scheduled to continue during the commission’s next meeting on Oct. 26.
New London — The Connecticut Port Authority has for the second time missed a deadline to obtain a federal permit needed for a portion of the $235.5 million State Pier construction project.
But while the Aug. 31 and now Oct. 15 deadlines have come and gone, both the CPA and its partners - the team of Danish wind company Ørsted and utility company Eversource - continue to express optimism the project will move forward as planned.
Andrew Lavigne, the CPA’s manager of business development and special projects, said the two sides plan to meet and either revise the deadline or revise the Harbor Development Agreement and sublease agreement.
“A new deadline has not yet been reached, however we will be meeting with our partners regularly with the goal of identifying a mutually agreeable timeline as soon as possible,” Lavigne said. “The Authority and our partners remain committed to developing a plan to deliver the project in its full scope. Altered scope has not been discussed in our meetings."
In the meantime, Lavigne said work crews continue progress on permitted work at State Pier that is not dependent on the federal permit, “including construction of the northeast bulkhead and heavy-lift pad, both of which have seen significant progress this month.”
Ørsted/Eversource can not dredge the Thames River without the federal permit.
The Port Authority earlier this year had agreed to certain deadlines with Ørsted/Eversource as part of an amendment to a Harbor Development Agreement, the document that governs the project. Ørsted and Eversource have pledged $70 million toward the project with the state contributing the rest.
In exchange for releasing their funding up front, Ørsted and Eversource secured the ability to pull back their funding if the Port Authority does not meet certain milestones such as obtaining the federal permit.
Ørsted and Eversource have plans to transform State Pier into a offshore wind hub to support its planned offshore wind farms.
While the Port Authority has obtained a permit from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the progress of the permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unclear. The Port Authority’s board, at an Oct. 5 meeting, approved a revised memorandum of agreement between the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office and Army Corps that is to be incorporated into a federal permit. It is one sign that the permit process is ongoing.
Port Authority Board Chairman David Kooris said at that Oct. 5 meeting said he believed the permit application was “working its way through the various internal approvals.”
“We remain confident that it’s on track and I don’t know if I’d use the word imminent, but coming very soon," Kooris said of permit application.
Ørsted and Eversource released the following statement to The Day On Monday.
"Ørsted and Eversource are Connecticut’s partner in addressing climate change, supporting economic development and job creation through offshore wind and the State Pier redevelopment project. With the agreed upon federal permit deadline having passed, we will be meeting with the Connecticut Port Authority and Gateway Terminal to assess the impact, if any, on the overall project schedule. We remain excited about the transformation of State Pier and its benefits to Connecticut."
Port Authority Board member John Johnson said he expects to have a permit in hand by next month and both sides remain committed to the project.
“There is a determination not only on the part of the CPA but our partners Ørsted and Eversource, that this thing is going to happen. We are like bulldogs. We have no thoughts that this is going to fall apart,” Johnson said.
Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday announced the launch of two new competitive grant programs designed to disburse up to $200 million to promote economic development in Connecticut cities and towns.
The first, known as the Innovation Corridor Program, is expected to select and fund two or more “transformational” projects in major urban areas that will create new jobs in high-growth fields such as data science, advanced manufacturing and insurance technology. The program aims to facilitate the creation of at least 15,000 new jobs, state officials said, and will grant up to $100 million over five years.
Municipalities are being encouraged to apply in conjunction with potential partners, including private businesses, developers, post-secondary education institutions and philanthropic or nonprofit entities.
The second initiative, known as the Connecticut Communities Challenge Program, will fund a wide range of projects throughout the state designed to improve the liveability and vibrancy of recipient cities and towns and create approximately 3,000 new jobs. The Department of Economic and Community Development, which is administering the program, said projects centered on essential infrastructure, transit-oriented development, housing, mobility and improvements to public spaces would be prioritized.
DECD expects to disburse up to $100 million through the Connecticut Communities Challenge Program over five years. Grant awards will range between $1 million and $10 million per project.
As with the Corridor Program, municipalities, economic development agencies and regional government councils are being encouraged to apply with private businesses, developers and other organizations.
Applications are now being accepted for both programs.
“Investing in our communities and high-growth industry sectors is a key part of our plan to accelerate long-lasting and equitable economic development in Connecticut,” Lamont said in a statement. “These two new programs will have wide-ranging impacts as we emerge stronger than ever from the pandemic, creating thousands of new jobs, improving the vibrancy and quality of life in our communities and making all corners of the state even more attractive for investment and opportunity.”
The programs’ launch came the same day Lamont announced a partnership involving the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, the Office of Workforce Strategy and Amazon Web Services that will offer education and technical skills training to thousands of Connecticut residents. That initiative is expected to prepare over 2,000 residents for jobs and opportunities in cloud computing by 2024.
When the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South Meadows broke down in November 2018, garbage started piling up inside the facility’s two cavernous storage areas. And kept piling up. And piled up some more.
The refuse was accumulating because operators could not hire enough trucks and drivers to haul it to out-of-state landfills.
By January 2019, the facility was jammed floor-to-roof with thousands of tons of trash, and officials were days away from a lose-lose decision: either start storing garbage outside in the parking lot, or tell towns not to send any more trash.
“It was nerve-wracking,” said Thomas D. Kirk, president and CEO of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, known by its acronym MIRA, which oversees the facility. “Thank God we didn’t have a fire.”
What saved the day was getting the plant repaired, partially in January and fully in March of 2019, so it could again burn garbage. The catastrophic breakdown in 2018-19 was neither the first nor the last time the aging and failing plant went on the fritz, but it was the most serious failure.
Was it a harbinger, a dress rehearsal for a major trash calamity?
It’s possible. Bad as it was, the 2018-19 breakdown did not trigger a sense of urgency to address what many insiders consider an impending crisis in the state’s solid waste management system, said MIRA ad hoc board member Thomas Swarr, a retired United Technologies engineer who lives in Hartford.
“Is the plan to sit back and wait for a complete disaster, with trash piling up in the streets, before anybody does anything?” Swarr said.
After years-long efforts to upgrade the plant with either private or public funds failed, the MIRA board voted late last year to shut the plant down by July 1, 2022, and truck about 500,000 tons of trash a year to out-of-state landfills. With the approximately 400,000 tons already being shipped out of state, more than a third of the state’s 2.4 million tons of garbage will be buried in another state. Hundreds of thousands of tons of construction and demolition debris, which is not counted or treated as municipal solid waste, also are shipped to out of state landfills by private contractors.
What is the plan?
MIRA went out with requests for proposals in the spring for landfill space and hauling, and the bids are in. Though he couldn’t line up enough trucks in 2018, Kirk was “cautiously optimistic” he could do it this time. He said three years ago he was looking for trucks on a short-term basis; this time it is on five-year contracts. He appears to have been right. Kirk told town officials during an online meeting on Oct. 14 that he’s received enough bids to transport and bury MIRA’s trash, possibly as far away as Alabama or Michigan.
He said terms are being negotiated but forecast a tipping fee $114-$119 a ton in the first year, going to $139-$146 in the 5th year, the lower number if all the towns agree not to opt out of the agreement. The present fee is $105 a ton.
But even with an agreement, Kirk is still not out of the woods. There is the matter of keeping the plant going until June 30. “It’s held together with duct tape and chicken wire,” said Swarr, “and could fail catastrophically.”
Kirk concedes that the plant is “on its last legs; old, tired and ready for retirement.”
And there is the challenge of keeping the skilled plant operators on staff through the closing date. Facing the prospect of unemployment, they could jump to other jobs.
As it tries to meet these challenges, MIRA appears to be unraveling. Four of its eleven regular board members have resigned as of Sept. 30 this year. That presents problems because many important issues require a supermajority of eight board votes — something of a challenge with only seven members. The quasi-public agency has long had trouble attracting board members; this time “we may have to send up a red flag” to state leaders, said Kirk. But maybe not. When Kirk announced the board shortage at the Oct. 14 meeting, Thomaston First Selectman Ed Mone offered to serve on the board.
Why did others leave?
“If we’re not going to create a solution and just truck waste out of the state, there’s no reason for me to be there,” said John Adams, one of the board members who resigned. He is a former Granby first selectman and a geologist who works for a firm that deals with contaminated properties.
Also, MIRA’s revenues have taken a beating in recent years. Electricity it once sold for 12 cents a kilowatt hour now goes for two to three cents. China’s decision in 2018 to ban the import of most residential recyclables turned a profit center into a loss center. And its four jet-powered generators, backups for when the grid is at peak demand, are being phased out. The jets once produced $16 million in payments to MIRA. Now the number is closer to $6 million and will be down to zero in 2023.
As a result, tipping fees, what towns pay to have their trash picked up, have increased by 35% in the last two years.
Finally, three towns, Roxbury, North Branford and East Hartford, left the agency this year, leaving it with 48 members. East Hartford’s departure was notable because its mayor, Marcia Leclerc, who is not seeking reelection, was one of the MIRA board members who resigned. She said she got a better deal, one that would save her town $104,000 a year. Hartford, the host community, has sent out a request for proposals for its trash hauling. “We have to consider all options,” said Mayor Luke Bronin, like Swarr an ad hoc MIRA board member.
The plan after 2027? There isn’t one.
The trash plant’s woes suggest to Swarr, Bronin, Kirk, MIRA board chair Don Stein and others that the state has to take a greater role in the management of its solid waste. “The state has some great ideas, but they don’t legislate them,” said Stein, who is also first selectman of Barkhamsted.
Swarr wonders if solid waste management should be structured as a public utility. “There are some natural monopolies. This may be one of them.”
“Our regional and statewide waste disposal crisis is reaching its final stages,” said Bronin. “The plant is obsolete and unreliable and will soon be unavailable. As a state, we have to recognize that a financially viable, environmentally responsible program has to be a public-private partnership requiring resources beyond the capacity of any town.”
Such a partnership was what officials thought they were getting in 2014.
Old coal plant
An irony in the return to putting garbage in a hole in the ground is that landfilling was what the state was trying to get away from when it created MIRA’s predecessor agency, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, or CRRA, in the 1970s. Landfills, especially back then, pollute groundwater and emit the potent greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide.
Turning trash into electricity was the way to go, and six trash-to-energy plants were created in the state (five remain). In the South Meadows, officials retrofitted an old coal-burning power plant into a trash-burning facility (though for years it burned some coal with the trash). One unfortunate aspect of the conversion was that officials chose a method called “refuse derived fuel,” meaning that the trash was shredded before it was burned, as opposed to “mass burn” plants, where trash is pushed directly into the boiler.
Kirk said at the time the refuse derived method was thought to encourage more recycling. But that turned out not to be the case. All it did was add millions of dollars of cost.
Nonetheless, the regional program moved ahead. In 1982, some 70 towns signed 30-year contracts to have their trash burned and turned into electricity.
Things went well enough for two decades. The agency did hit a low point in 2001 when it loaned $220 million to energy giant Enron, which shortly afterwards went bankrupt. Only about three-quarters of the money was recovered, a serious waste of public funds.
As that decade wore on, it was becoming clearer that the sprawling brick and steel trash-to-energy plant was in need of overhaul or replacement. When the first contracts were up in 2012, only about 50 towns signed up for new 15-year contracts, the ones that end in 2027.
The General Assembly attempted to solve the problems in 2014. The solons passed a statute that among other things directed the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, DEEP, to identify a “provider of solid waste management services” to redevelop the and modernize the plant and implement new diversion practices to reduce the amount of trash going into the plant. MIRA would then negotiate an agreement with the private partner.
The law also changed the name of the agency from the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority to the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, apparently to suggest a new start and a new emphasis on diverting and reusing waste materials rather than burning or burying them.
To that end, the new law also directed DEEP to update the state’s solid waste management plan by 2016 to include a strategy for “diverting, through source reduction, reuse and recycling, not less than 60%” of the state’s solid waste by 2024, about twice the current diversion level. The plan was updated, but the goal now seems well out of reach.
In any event, DEEP identified a contractor, a Spanish-U.S. entity, the Sacyr Rooney Recovery Team to upgrade the plant and the recycling facility. However, MIRA and Sacyr Rooney could not reach a financial agreement acceptable to the member towns.
Kirk said it was going to take about $330 million to update the trash-to-energy plant and recycling facility and make other improvements. It would have required the towns to pay tipping fees of $145 a ton, up from about $85 a ton, and sign 30-year contracts. The towns weren’t interested. Because Sacyr-Rooney needed the trash from all the towns to generate adequate revenue, and towns can opt out of the program, the company said it needed guarantees, Kirk recalled.
MIRA went to the state for the $330 million, and the state rejected the request. There was discussion of a smaller amount to keep the plant going until 2027, but that also went nowhere. DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said the 2014 statute envisioned private, not public, funding.
As DEEP viewed it, MIRA was just trying to perpetuate the trash-burning status quo and, said Deputy Commissioner Betsey Wingfield, “$330 million is a lot of money for the status quo.” In retrospect, asking a private entity to put up hundreds of millions, but then let MIRA control the program, as the statute envisioned, may have doomed the deal, Adams said.
So it fell through. “After four years, we were back to square one,” said MIRA chairman Stein.
Seeing no other alternative, the MIRA board announced that it would shut the plant down by July 1, 2022 and truck the trash to out-of-state landfills.
That wasn’t the end of it.
Test of wills
DEEP was not happy with this decision. DEEP officials had been trying to push MIRA to embrace the new era of waste management that focuses on recovering and reusing materials and keeping them out of the waste stream. As CT Mirror environmental writer Jan Ellen Spiegel has reported, there is a growing movement to get food wastes out of landfills or incinerators.
MIRA, on the other hand, has largely kept its focus on solving the immediate problem, first by trying to keep the trash plant going and then by shipping waste out of state.
That was the gist, more or less, of the plan of operation MIRA submitted to DEEP in July 2020. Dykes rejected it, saying it “represents a false choice and a bad deal for the taxpayers and … the environment.“ Kirk disagreed, saying in a letter to Dykes that choices other than restoring the trash plant or shipping to out-of-state landfills “simply do not exist.”
Another dispute arose over whether MIRA needed a new permit, or a modification to its existing permit, to turn the trash-to-energy plant into a transfer station. The department initially resisted the idea, but has since signaled it could approve a permit modification to allow transfer until 2027. MIRA applied for a permit modification on Sept. 29.
If the modification is approved, the state will go back to the past, to a solution — dumping in some other state’s land — that nobody is happy with.
“Shifting waste from a poor urban community (Hartford) to a poor rural community (where many out-of-state landfills are located) hardly seems like a win for either the environment or social justice,” Swarr wrote in an email earlier this year. “It certainly is not consistent with the state’s Comprehensive Materials Management Strategy.”
And, as he and others have observed, sending scores of heavy trucks each day to distant landfills sends more pollutants into the atmosphere.
That 2016 solid waste plan says landfilling should only be a “last resort.” It also calls on the state to manage its own waste and not send it elsewhere.
By 2027, there needs to be a plan in place to adopt the next generation of materials management infrastructure, and it is far from clear that MIRA is the agency to prepare that plan. Two current or former board members fault the agency for weak planning.
“MIRA has done a poor job of long term planning,” said Leclerc.
“I get that we have to solve the immediate crisis, but there should have been a parallel effort to plan for the next phase,” said Swarr.
The state’s solid waste plan says MIRA’s “focus on operating existing facilities rather than developing new ones” may prevent MIRA from leading the charge to the future.
Perhaps surprisingly, Kirk agrees. He said if the state is to follow its solid waste management plan and manage its own waste, it will have to make significant infrastructure investments. He said it doesn’t appear that MIRA has the statutory authority or capability, never mind the resources, for this task.
It’s impossible to know what 2027 will look like, whether MIRA will still exist, whether waste management will become a public utility, whether the 80-acre trash plant site will be returned to Hartford for remediation — no small task — and redevelopment. A Hartford solid waste task force chaired by Swarr last year advocated for the creation of a network of “smaller, distributed facilities to receive municipal waste (and) employ state-of-the-art separation technology to recover organics and potentially recyclable materials.”
“These facilities would be a necessary complement to efforts to expand source separation of food waste and recyclables to absolutely minimize waste sent for final disposal. “
When Dykes rejected MIRA’s plan of operation last year, two environmental groups, the Energy Justice Network and the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, applauded the decision and urged the department to eschew incineration entirely.
Incineration is “the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or make energy — dirtier than coal burning and worse than direct use of landfills,” wrote Sharon Lewis of the Connecticut Coalition and Mike Ewall of the Justice Network.
Kirk vehemently disagrees. “Everything (in that sentence) is wrong,” he said. He said air-cleaning technology has improved, and the emissions of many trash-to-energy plants including Hartford’s are monitored around the clock for compliance with pubic health standards.
Still, most people in the field, Kirk included, support more reuse and recycling to keep materials our of incinerators or landfills. And that may not be the best reason to recycle.
“In most cases, the biggest environmental benefit of recycling comes not from avoiding incineration and landfilling but from substituting recycled materials for virgin resources in production,” said Reid Lifset, an industrial environmental management expert at the Yale School of the Environment.
Environmentalists Lewis and Ewall urged Dykes toward the Zero Waste philosophy — an approach that seeks to “maximize recycling, minimize waste, reduce consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace,” according to the DEEP website.
The state has made real progress in some of these areas. One pillar of Zero Waste is getting producers to take more responsibility for their products at the end of their useful lives. This has led to recycling programs for mattresses, electronics and paint. Plus, the Metropolitan District Commission collects household hazardous wastes in Greater Hartford.
The General Assembly this year strengthened the bottle bill, increasing the deposit from five to 10 cents and expanding the types of bottles covered. On the subject of glass recycling, on Sept. 1, residents of 14 Western Connecticut municipalities served by the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority began separating all “food-grade” glass containers — food jars, liquor and wine bottles, beverage bottles — from their mixed single-stream recycling bins and bringing them to local drop-off centers.
This not only separates recyclable “good glass” from non-recyclable or “bad” glass, it increases public involvement in waste management. The public has rarely been heard on this topic.
“Trash pickup is a service most people expect government to perform, period,” said Adams. But public interest has been known to spur state action.
Dykes has also convened a coalition of more than 80 towns to explore ways to reduce the amount of waste the state generates and improve reuse, recycling and organics collection, among other measures. For example, the group is studying unit-based pricing, or pay-as-you-throw, in which residents are charged based on the amount trash they generate, the goal of which is to encourage more recycling and less throwaway trash.
The department recently announced a $5 million grant program to support local and regional unit-based pricing and organics recycling efforts. A half-dozen communities including Middletown, Meriden and West Haven are developing organics recycling programs.
“We’re getting some traction. There are really positive things happening,” said deputy commissioner Wingfield.
In addition to the state programs, there is considerable innovation underway in the private sector, in such areas as anaerobic digestion (Quantum Biopower, Southington); materials sorting (Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Norwalk); and energy conversion (Green Waste Energy, Greenwich), among others. In April, MIRA shut down its recycling facility — which, like the trash plant, is in dire need of work — and contracted its recycling to Murphy Road Recycling, which is building a $30 million, state-of-the-art recycling facility in Berlin.
For all of this, the state is still a home-rule mishmash of local and regional trash collection and recycling programs and policies. Some towns are paying more than others, although often residents don’t realize it because the cost is baked into their property tax bill.
Perhaps the question is whether to continue the incremental improvements or go bigger, as California did when it passed a law requiring residents and businesses to recycle organic waste, beginning Jan. 1, 2022. All jurisdictions must provide organic waste collection services.
Organics make up about a third of Connecticut’s waste stream. Removing them, along with more robust recycling, would greatly reduce, or possibly eliminate, the need for out-of-state transport.
Zero Waste, said Swarr, is “an aspirational goal that is physically impossible to achieve. While the initiatives are absolutely necessary, they will not eliminate the need for disposal infrastructure.”
As he sees it, the impending closure of the Hartford trash-to-energy plant, as well as the various innovations under way, offer a remarkable opportunity for state leadership.
“Think about it, he said. “DEEP could step back and reimagine the entire system.”