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January 11, 2021

Food could hold the key to fixing the state’s waste disposal problems

Photo | CT MIrror The MIRA trash-to-energy facility in Hartford’s South Meadows.

Food waste is a fact of life. Also a fact is that it’s smelly, wet and heavy. It makes a mess out of the rest of the trash and is generally nasty.

Getting food waste out of the trash may also provide the key to how Connecticut repairs the dated, expensive, fragmented and environmentally fraught waste systems in the state. But the question is whether it makes more sense to get the food out of the waste stream first or whether other parts of the system get fixed first so the food part follows.

It’s a chicken-egg problem, and which comes first isn’t clear. What is clear, officials say, is that food waste cannot be ignored any longer.

“Crisis is the driver,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the department that oversees waste disposal of all kinds. “I don’t use the ‘c’ word lightly, but we really truly are in a crisis.”

The looming crisis is with the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority facility – the MIRA plant, as it is known – in Hartford. It’s a repurposed coal plant that now burns trash from about one-third of the state and turns it into energy. It’s one of five in the state.

But MIRA is old, and it breaks a lot. It closed for months in 2018, and parts are hard to come by. DEEP rejected its $330 million proposal to rebuild the plant and its adjacent recycling operation with 30-year commitments from municipalities as entrenching a dated system. So MIRA plans to close in 2022, and while burning trash adds to the toxic air pollutant brew that contributes to climate change, it’s still more environmentally friendly than landfills.

That means Connecticut would have to truck the waste out of state, since landfills here closed years ago.

Many think food waste is the key.

The trend worldwide, with the U.S. largely bringing up the rear, is to get food out of the waste stream. In the U.S. 30-40% of food is tossed – a bit higher than worldwide. Food waste accounts for more than 20% of the waste stream.

In Connecticut’s last waste assessment in 2015, it accounted for more than 22% — an increase of more than 65% from five years earlier.

We really truly are in a crisis.”

The trend worldwide, with the U.S. largely bringing up the rear, is to get food out of the waste stream. In the U.S. 30-40% of food is tossed – a bit higher than worldwide. Food waste accounts for more than 20% of the waste stream.

In Connecticut’s last waste assessment in 2015, it accounted for more than 22% — an increase of more than 65% from five years earlier.

And food waste is a major climate change contributor. The World Resources Institute has said if food waste was a country it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the U.S.

Sorting out the problem
Food waste is heavy, so it adds to the costs for those who pay to dump their trash. It’s also wet and does not burn well. And there are many other useful things that can be done with extra food – feeding people in need, providing electricity through non-burn means or making it into usable compost, for example.

Thinking about the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to rebuild MIRA, which does none of those things, Dykes said: “What if you put that investment towards building the infrastructure and the programs to pull this material, which isn’t trash, out of the waste stream? All of a sudden you might find we can maintain self-sufficiency in our state.”

So late last summer, she created the Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management (CCSMM), a joint effort between DEEP and dozens of municipalities to figure out what to do. Among the four working groups, food waste had by far the most participants.

All the groups faced an ambitious time frame – not much more than three months to produce a comprehensive report and recommendations timed for release at the start of the legislative session.

“It’s the absolute lowest-hanging fruit to take the pressure off the waste to energy infrastructure in this state. If you divert it properly, it could be 25 to 30% of what we send up to the waste to energy plant,” Dave Aldridge, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority (SCRRRA) – a 12-municipality waste management consortium, said of food waste. “A real win in this thing in my mind is just the fact that the commissioner’s got half the state talking about this. She’s got half of the municipalities in the state – that’s huge.”

But in a home-rule state with 169 cities and towns each with individualized waste systems that in many cases provide multiple options – what do you do?

Would it be best to build a system that first separates out food waste to take the pressure off the incinerators and the environment — or build an overall waste system that will be more beneficial and cheaper, if the food waste is removed? And if the decision is to get the food out first, how would that work?

First steps

Municipal and regional waste officials in Connecticut want something to change. And what they’d like is a system in which the more you throw away, the more you pay — effectively a meter to incentivize a municipality to throw away less to keep its disposal fees – known as tipping fees — down.

In most municipally run systems in Connecticut, every household pays the same regardless of how much trash it produces. And mostly it’s an invisible cost, hidden in local taxes.

There are analogies – the more electricity you use, the more you pay; the more water you use, the more you pay. Waste should be the same, some argue. In waste-industry parlance, it’s generally known as pay-as-you-throw, or “unit-based” pricing. Connecticut often refers to it as SMART – save money and reduce trash. Many say the best way to do that is to get the food out of the waste stream.

But the CCSMM meetings have made clear that before the food comes out, there must be a place to put it — and a cost-effective way to get it there.

In 2011, Connecticut passed a commercial food waste diversion law. It requires certain commercial operations such as food manufacturers and grocery stores (though not restaurants or schools) that generate 1 ton of food scraps a week (lowered a year ago from 2 tons) — and are within 20 miles of a food scrap recycling facility such as a commercial composter — to separate the food waste and have it recycled.

Several problems come up repeatedly: There are very few composters, and most of them are off in corners of the state; there are too many exemptions, minimal enforcement, and transportation costs too much.

But the law has prompted development of the state’s first grid-scale anaerobic digester — Quantum Biopower in Southington. Digesters use a biological process — often compared to a cow’s stomach — to turn food waste mixed with other organics such as wood chips into combustible gas that is then harnessed for electricity. A byproduct of compost that can be sold for agricultural use is left at the end of the digestion process.

Southington purchases the 1.2 megawatts of power the digester makes.

But it took Quantum a staggering 30 months – which almost killed the project — to get permitted by DEEP, finally opening four years ago. Among three other digesters that have been permitted, none is moving forward, and the permits for one in Bridgeport have expired.

Finding a purchaser for the power is relatively easy. But the current commercial food waste law doesn’t guarantee a supply of food, and without that, finding investors willing to finance digesters is next to impossible. It’s another chicken-egg problem — without either one, you can’t have the other.

The curbside option
A few curbside food waste pickup services have come on the scene. The largest is Blue Earth in Hartford. Almost all its food waste goes to Quantum. Another – Curbside Compost – operates in lower Fairfield County into New York. But both are subscription services – residents and businesses pay to have their food waste picked up. The incentive for residents is primarily the environmental benefit that comes from getting food out of the waste stream, but financial benefits can trickle down as less waste means less costs to municipalities. Businesses required under the law to separate their food waste can find savings by using those services as well.

Most of Blue Earth’s residential customers are in a wide circle around Hartford, plus a small number on the shoreline near New Haven. But the bulk of its customers are commercial. COVID introduced a new problem when restaurants, schools, colleges, hotels and other large venues closed or severely curtailed services – a big drop in food waste for the digester.

“The waste culture changed so dramatically as soon as COVID hit,” said Brian Paganini, Quantum’s vice president and managing director. “Had the state had a way of collecting residential food waste, that certainly would have given stability at least to folks like us.”

Alex Williams, Blue Earth’s owner and director of operations, said pre-pandemic commercial food scraps were 90% of its business, running two routes five times a week.

“Commercial food waste in Connecticut, although severely untapped, was moving at a pretty good clip,” he said. “We were out there gaining customers two, three, four-a-month commercial customers, big ones, which was much greater growth than we had been seeing.”

Now it’s just one truck and an overall 30-40% reduction, even though with home residential service grew more last year than it has in any previous year, Williams said.

Quantum and Blue Earth are hanging in. Earlier efforts were not as lucky.

In 2013, Jennifer Heaton-Jones, executive director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, ran the state’s first food waste curbside pickup pilot program in Bridgewater, one of its 11 member towns at the time – now 12.

“We had a fantastic, very successful collection program,” she said. “I don’t even want to say it failed — why it didn’t continue — because no one wanted to pay for the for the added cost.”
It was $5 a week.

None of the HRRA towns has municipal trash service, which means residents either hire a private hauler or haul their own. The potential that the $5 would eventually save them money never entered the picture at the time.

Some HRRA towns are now back attempting food waste drop-offs – or would like to. To that end, Heaton-Jones is trying to start a demonstration project in Ridgefield composting leaves and food waste. She’s been waiting for a permit for a year.

“All we want to do is compost,” she said.

That’s what Aldridge at SCRRRA wants to do too. He’s also waiting for a permit.

Without the state, some municipalities go it alone
SCRRRA has a site ready to go at the Stonington transfer station to test commercial composting while SCRRRA settles on a central site for a permanent compost operation for all member towns.

“Everybody’s interested,” Aldridge said. When he asked his board for funding: “It was a unanimous vote. I didn’t even have to sell it. This is an easy one — people really get that this is a good thing.”

And Stonington was happy to supply the location. It’s had unit-based pricing for 30 years – one of barely a handful of towns in the state that does. Residents buy yellow bags – there are two sizes at different prices, and all of their trash goes into those bags. Implementing the program cut Stonington’s trash volume by half almost instantly, saving the town enough money in tipping fees over time to build a $7 million school.

John Phetteplace, Stonington’s director of solid waste, figures tipping fees are heading up, so it’s time to start getting the food out. “The more trash I send, the more money I pay — so if I can remove 30% of my waste stream, or better, then I am going to pay less,” he said. “Not to mention the environmental benefits.”

John Phetteplace, Stonington’s director of solid waste, figures tipping fees are heading up, so it’s time to start getting the food out. “The more trash I send, the more money I pay — so if I can remove 30% of my waste stream, or better, then I am going to pay less,” he said. “Not to mention the environmental benefits.”

Mansfield has also had unit-based-pricing for 30 years using different size trash barrels. Efforts to compost food waste at schools and the transfer station stalled due to COVID. “We’re in the state of regression,” said Virginia Walton, the recycling coordinator. “I would encompass food scraps collection if there was something local enough for the food scraps to go to. The infrastructure isn’t there.”

Matt Knickerbocker, Bethel first selectman and co-chair of the CCSMM, would like to add a food waste operation. “I’m hoping our new DPW director working with HRRA can come up with a way to do that,” he said.

Greenwich started a voluntary food scrap drop-off program at its transfer center last spring. It’s already logging about a ton a week from 500-600 participating households. But the transfer station is way out in the western part of town, and there’s still the cost of getting it trucked to a commercial composter in New Milford.

And then there’s Hartford – the biggest city that uses MIRA, and desperately in need of waste disposal alternatives. In August, it had Blue Earth provide a white paper on how cities around the country are handling food waste and policy issues to consider.

Mike Looney, Hartford’s public works director, said with trash tipping fees destined to rise, removing a quarter of the waste represents a big savings. “It’s certainly to our fiscal benefit to get this out of the waste stream and find a cheaper way to get rid of it.”

He’s thinking of starting a pilot program first with a couple of neighborhoods. “It would give us an opportunity to kick the tires a little bit,” he said.

The common denominator is that these towns are recreating the food waste wheel on their own. Some are reaching out to neighboring municipalities, but mostly they’re just thinking about reaching out.

CCSMM’s big ideas

One thing apparent from the CCSMM food waste working group is that it would be more efficient if the state set unifying policies. There are a lot of ideas coming from the food waste group – many borne of failures and problems with even the few regulations on the books. Determining what to do first hangs over all of it.

There is near-universal support for revamping the existing commercial food waste statute. How is another matter.

The law now requires businesses that create one ton of food waste per week and are within 20 miles of a permitted recycling facility to recycle. Most everyone wants the current one-ton trigger lowered or eliminated, exemptions to the law eliminated or scaled back, and enforcement ramped up — but it’s not clear how that would work.

The idea of raising the mileage mandate from 20 miles is running into all kinds concerns. Since transportation is often the costliest part of the waste system, municipalities might lose money if they are required to transport farther.

The common refrain is that the first step must be establishing infrastructure to support food waste recycling — compost facilities, anaerobic digesters, collection systems and so forth.

More questions follow. What kind of collection systems would work best? There’s the idea of co-collection, where a colored food waste bag goes inside a trash bag of another color so it can be separated. There are questions around what kinds of trucks would be needed, who would pay for new ones or retrofits to old ones, and how much trash is likely to be generated once food and other recyclables are removed.

Alongside those questions is the issue of how to get financial backing for infrastructure or municipalities without an absolute guarantee of a reliable supply of food waste, which would require some sort of mandate to separate food waste, which is hard to do if you don’t have someplace to put it – which gets back to the question of establishing infrastructure. 

It’s yet another bedeviling chicken-egg dilemma.

Paganini at Quantum has seen it play out in real time. “Is there enough [waste] material out there? The answer is yes. Are we getting all the material? The answer is no,” he said. “Early on, we relied heavily on the food diversion mandate in the state of Connecticut, but as we’ve learned, the mandate lacks some teeth and lacks a level of enforcement. But it also lacks a level of incentivization. Why would a municipality or a commercial customer be incentivized to engage in food waste diversions?”

And that brings up a host of other considerations, such as whether food waste should have lower tipping fees than trash, or whether unit-based pricing should get thrown into the mix with lower fees for food waste. Or maybe there’s a way to set up metrics such as increased tipping fees if a community doesn’t hit a per capita food waste diversion.

One of the biggest questions is whether food waste should be declared a recyclable and therefore mandated for removal as are other recyclables. Which is another way of asking — should the state come in and just take over? 

That gets perilously close to one of the state’s third rails – home rule. Most involved in CCSMM said state action, or at the very least regional action, is the way to go. Leaving each municipality to find a solution on its own is widely viewed as unsatisfactory.

Then comes the ultimate chicken-and-egg question – what should come first, implementing unit-based pricing or getting food out of the waste stream?

Stonington’s Phetteplace points to his own success with unit-based pricing as an argument to do that first. Whatever DEEP and the state decide, he said, it’s time to get moving.

“If you’ve got a crisis looming in two years, it seems to me that they should be doing everything in their power to get these things up and running,” he said. He and others say revamping the bogged-down permitting process needs to be high on the priority list – suggesting that towns form partnerships with DEEP, instead of applying to them for permits.

“So that they have skin in the game too,” he said.

Listing her priorities, Dykes says the first step should be to streamline permitting. She notes the need for a steady supply of food waste and helping municipalities figure out the best way to collect it, noting co-collection – the bag within a bag – as a good option.

“That seems like an interesting on-ramp to getting food scraps diverted from the waste that could be low-cost and really scalable,” she said. “We’ve got to have all of the pieces of the puzzle come together at the same time. I think we have great shot of that happening in 2021.”

The state’s role
That is, it could happen in 2021 if the legislature is willing to go along. DEEP is proposing revisions to the commercial food waste regulations, including: increasing the distance from a recycling facility that would trigger the food-waste recycling law from 20 miles to 30 miles; lowering the amount of food waste that would trigger the law to 26 tons a year (a half-ton per week), or half of what it is now; and adding institutions, such as schools, to the list of entities required to recycle waste food. Dykes would also like to loosen restrictions on farm-based anaerobic digesters. But the key issue of whether there should be a statewide food waste separation mandate or a pay-as-you-throw policy still remains.

“We can’t get it done at the municipal level, so now we think the legislators are gonna do it?” Phetteplace asked, more than a little rhetorically.

“I don’t know enough about it,” said incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter.

Laura Hoydick does and has concerns about the legislature too, having served as a Republican representative from Stratford, where she’s been mayor for the last three years.

Asked if getting food waste out of residential waste makes sense, she answered: “Yes. To me, yes.”

“It would be amazing to me if we could just figure out this food and the organics piece.”

She’d be happy to have an anaerobic digester sited in Stratford, now that the permits have expired for the one that had been approved for Bridgeport. “It’s a good investment for the long term,” she said.

And as for statewide policies to get things moving? “Yes,” she said.

Other big ideas

Using food waste for animal feed comes up a lot among working group members. It’s No. 3 on the EPA’s food recovery hierarchy, preceded by feeding the hungry and reducing the amount of surplus food.

The failings of existing systems for feeding hungry people were bared by the pandemic. In addition to beefing up recovery and distribution systems, there are a few bureaucratic changes to food labeling and liability laws that could help, according to the Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic.

Connecticut is actually a little ahead of federal liability law that protects food donors, nonprofits, volunteers, gleaners and others when excess food is provided free. The state also covers them if a small fee is involved. Ariel Ardura, a fellow at the clinic, said the organization recommends extending protection for food donations that go directly to people who need it. So if shutdowns hit on short notice as they did early in the pandemic, restaurants, schools, farmers and others could have given excess food directly to people without worrying about liability.

Food labels have long caused confusion, resulting in good food landing in the waste stream. Connecticut has sell-by dates for perishable foods and use-by labels for semi-perishable and shelf-stable foods. But people often misinterpret sell-by to be use-by and don’t understand that use-by reflects quality, not safety.

There have been pushes for standardized federal labels, which right now are only mandated for infant formula. In the absence of federal action, the clinic recommends better education.

California is the national leader in food waste initiatives. San Francisco has had mandatory separation for a dozen years, ramping up over time. Now the whole state will be doing it under a recently enacted state law requiring all businesses and residences to recycle organics waste beginning in another couple of years. The lag is to give the state time to put infrastructure and education in place.

But Connecticut need only look across the border. Massachusetts started its gradual rollout of voluntary and cooperative food waste programs more than two decades ago. In 2010, Massachusetts announced that a commercial food waste ban for anything over one ton a week would start in 2014 – providing plenty of time to get infrastructure in place.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection provided free technical assistance to companies plus $3.5 million in grants and more than $5 million in loans to help. Today there are 2,900 businesses with separate food waste collection in Massachusetts, and only 2,000 of them are actually required to do it. Food rescue of fresh and perishable food increased by 50% since the program was put into place. 

John Fischer, deputy division director for solid waste at the Massachusetts DEP, doesn’t much go for the chicken-egg analogy for structuring a food waste system. He prefers an inchworm one. “You have the front of the inchworm pulled forward, and then you bring along the back,” he said.

Two trains on parallel tracks works too. One represents infrastructure and the other the diverted waste. “You need both of them moving forward at roughly the same rate and the same scale,” he said, so you won’t have more waste than the system can handle or you won’t have overspent and overbuilt capacity you don’t need.

Which does come first?

“Sometimes it comes down to a chicken or egg argument,” said Chris Nelson, supervisor of DEEP’s sustainable materials management group. “Ideally, you have everything moving forward together as kind of a unified piece, but realistically, that’s going to be very difficult to achieve.”

For Kristen Brown, vice president waste reduction strategy at Waste Zero, a consultant group that has been working with the state and individual communities for a few years, unit-based pricing should come first. “If you target the food,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’ll make much headway without backing it up with unit-based pricing.”

The two together – something she has seen in operation all over the world – is definitely a money-saver, she said.

In Bethel, Knickerbocker is OK starting with food waste in the face of a waste crisis that threatens to push the state’s trash system backwards, exporting more waste to-out-of-state landfills than 30 years ago.

“I think we have the best opportunity that we’ve seen since the waste-to-energy plants were conceived in the first place,” he said. “This represents an opportunity to really revamp the entire system.”

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