Connecticut officials see dollar signs in garbage.
Throughout 2012, state officials will push businesses to look for more value in trash — aiming to reuse or recycle the valuable raw materials that would otherwise be burned or buried in landfills.
"The only green I really think about is cash," said Tom DeVivo, owner of recycling firm Willimantic Waste Paper. "It is all we think about recycling as an industry. We have raw materials in those blue containers."
Gov. Dannel Malloy appointed DeVivo and 14 other industry and government officials to his Modernizing Recycling Working Group, which met on April 12 for the first time. By Dec. 1, the group must make recommendations to upgrade the state's solid waste management policies, focusing on increasing the recycling rate.
"There's potential for all businesses to reduce their disposal costs by increasing the amount of their recycling," said Diane Duva, assistant director of the Waste Engineering and Enforcement Division at the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. "The concept is to try not to produce trash in the first place."
In 2010, Connecticut produced 3.2 million tons of solid waste, a decrease from the previous two years. Of that 3.2 million tons, 24 percent was recycled; 68 percent was burned at trash-to-energy plants; 7 percent was sent to out-of-state landfills and incinerators; and 1 percent was put in Connecticut landfills.
The first mission of the recycling push is convincing businesses and residents of the value of their garbage. Items such as paper, aluminum cans, cardboard, glass and plastic are raw materials that can be recycled and sold to paper mills and glass and plastic manufacturers.
"Connecticut needs to wrap around the idea that recycling materials are tools for jobs," DeVivo said.
Electronic waste — computers, televisions, toasters, etc. — contains precious materials such as gold that is cheaper to recycle than to mine out of the earth, Duva said. In Connecticut, electronics manufacturers pay for their products to be recycled, and most cities and towns have places where consumers can take these goods for recycling.
"There is a higher and better use than sending the materials to waste-to-energy plants," Duva said.
One of the biggest assets being thrown away in Connecticut is food waste, which makes up about one-third of all garbage in the state.
Through composting, the food waste emits a natural gas that can be burned as fuel, which can be turned into electricity. The compost also makes an excellent fertilizer and can be sold to the nursery and landscape community, Duva said.
"There is tremendous opportunity in food waste," Duva said. "There is a real value in capturing what is one-third of our trash."
In order to increase recycling of food waste, Connecticut passed a law in 2011 pushing for more composting facilities. The law requires large scale producers of food waste — grocery stores, resorts, convention centers, wholesalers, distributors and processors — to send their leftover food to any composting facility within 20 miles.
"This law helps our food industry, a large and vital part of Connecticut's economy, to save money in disposal costs, and it will help generate new economic development in organics recycling. It will help get a valuable resource out of our waste stream, and back into commerce where it belongs," said DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty.
The law is meant to provide an economic incentive for composting facilities to set up shop in Connecticut by guaranteeing them a stream of raw materials.
"The lack of composting facilities has been a problem," said Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, which represents grocery stores.
Once nearby composting facilities open up, grocery stores will save money by recycling their food waste. Even with the cost of shipping, the reduction in garbage disposal costs makes it economical, Sorkin said.
While recycling food waste is a major area where improvement is important, Connecticut should focus on the low-hanging fruit first, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capital Region Council of Governments and a member of the governor's Modernizing Recycling Working Group. The state only has so much money to start these programs and spending should center on increasing the recycling rate quickly.
"The question is where you get the biggest bang for your buck to raise the recycling rate, so that might not be the first step," Wray said.
The low-hanging fruit for increased recycling is hitting areas where rates typically are low, like urban multi-family dwelling and rural areas, Wray said. Introduce measures such as single stream recycling and curbside pickup, so people don't have to sort or transport their recyclables.
"Make it convenient and easy, people will do it," Wray said.
Once recycling rates pick up, Connecticut needs to move to take advantage of the other side of the industry, DeVivo said. The state needs more raw material processors like paper mills and glass and plastics manufacturers. Nearly all the recycled materials from Willimantic Waste Paper have to be shipped out of state.
"To me, it is all about business," DeVivo said.