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April 25, 2016

Pain in the Trash: CT waste plan leans on industry

PHOTO | Pablo Robles At MIRA's Hartford recycling plant, recycling coordinator Thomas Gaffey says plastic bags can contaminate and reduce the value of recyclables the plant sells. Regulators are grappling with how to handle bags in the waste stream.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles MIRA workers screen a recyclables conveyor belt for bags, needles and other contaminants.

For more than a decade, Connecticut regulators, municipalities and environmental groups have been nudging manufacturers and other businesses to assume more responsibility — financial and otherwise — for what happens to their products when consumers dispose of them.

Since 2011, Connecticut lawmakers — in the face of varying levels of industry opposition — have launched mandated collection and recycling programs for electronics, paint and mattresses, funded by millions in industry fees, which are often passed onto consumers.

Now more industries could soon be impacted by similar programs, if state policymakers have their way.

Mandated industry responsibility for the life cycle of a product is known as “extended producer responsibility”, or EPR, and falls under the umbrella philosophy of “product stewardship,” which can involve more voluntary programs.

In a February draft document containing major updates to the state's official waste management plan, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) signalled it's prepared to double down on EPR, naming scrap tires, batteries and carpets as prime targets, while calling for further study of consumer packaging, printed paper, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, plastic bags, construction debris and other items. Any state regulations or laws that eventually result could range from voluntary efforts to mandates.

Ambitious goal

Legislators have already sought to address some of those waste items in recent legislation, including a handful of bills this year.

Barring major changes to the draft plan, now known as the Comprehensive Materials Management Strategy, leaning further on product makers will be an increasingly important strategy, among others, for the state to hit its ambitious goal of reducing by roughly half the amount of trash it burns to produce energy by 2024.

Of the state's aggregate waste stream, somewhere between 25 percent and 35 percent is currently saved from incinerators at trash-to-energy facilities through reuse, recycling, composting and other methods, according to estimates. The 2024 diversion goal is 60 percent.

Lee Sawyer, DEEP project manager for materials management and compliance assurance, readily admits the goal is ambitious. On the subject of new stewardship requirements for industry, he said DEEP would prefer to build collaborative approaches with businesses.

But he said EPR programs are “key to achieving the statewide diversion goal.”

According to the draft plan, reaching that goal will take other strategies, including reducing the overall amount of waste generated in the state, improving collection systems for recyclables, stepping up state enforcement of existing recycling mandates for apartment and commercial buildings, convincing more residents to commit to recycling, and developing new technologies, such as anaerobic digestion plants for food waste.

Overhauling the solid waste system

As it prepares an overhaul of the state's waste plan, DEEP, at the legislature's direction, has also asked energy developers to submit proposals for how to overhaul its solid waste system, including trash-burning and recycling facilities in Hartford operated by the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA).

There's a lot happening at once, and MIRA's Thomas Gaffey, director of recycling and enforcement, said DEEP will need adequate staff and funding for enforcement and other efforts.

“My concern is, with what's going on with the state budget, are they going to have the resources to pull this off?” Gaffey said. “And I'm not sure. I mean, I hope they do.”

If the state doesn't hit its 60 percent goal in the next eight years, it may not be able to handle the trash produced within its own borders.

In that scenario, the state would have to export more of its trash to other states, leading to higher costs for businesses and residents, DEEP's Sawyer said.

“[Costs] can really skyrocket,” he said. “We have to make sure we have sufficient capacity for disposal.”

EPR so far

The electronics and paint extended producer responsibility programs launched in Connecticut in 2011 and 2013, respectively, have removed more than 50 million pounds of televisions and other electronics and more than 500,000 gallons of paint from the waste stream, according to state reports.

The two programs allow consumers to dispose of those items at various drop-off sites around the state and have saved municipalities more than $3 million in disposal costs, according to the state.

The electronics and paint programs have been financed by more than $15 million in fees on manufacturers and retailers. The paint fee is paid by consumers at the point of sale.

The mattress EPR program, which requires used mattresses to be recycled and is funded by a $9 fee collected when a new mattress or box spring is sold, will end its first year next month.

Ahead of the plan

Though DEEP's waste plan isn't final, environmental groups and legislators haven't waited to attempt to solve waste challenges through legislation.

Bills this session propose studies and other measures for scrap tires, plastic grocery bags and consumer packaging. None of the bills adhere to the true definition of EPR, to the disappointment of some environmental and municipal groups, but each contains elements of product stewardship.

One proposal, House Bill 5149, takes aim at a growing problem in the state — illegal dumping of scrap tires. Hartford, for example, expects to collect and dispose 6,000 illegally dumped tires this year, Mayor Luke Bronin said in testimony.

Haulers have been forced to send many tires out of state since a Sterling facility that accepted millions of tires annually stopped doing so three years ago.

The bill requires DEEP to work with industry to find end markets for tires and assess whether it should establish a permit system for tire haulers. The Connecticut Recyclers Coalition and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities both support the bill, but hope it leads to a stewardship or EPR program.

Plastic bag problem

Meantime, Senate Bill 226 aims to reduce the use of grocery and other plastic bags. Connecticut consumers used nearly 17,000 tons of plastic bags last year, according to a DEEP study, up from under 12,000 tons in 2010. Though they shouldn't, many residents place bags in single-stream recycling bins, which ultimately gums up machinery at the state's recycling facilities, such as MIRA's Hartford plant, where 19 sorters are constantly on the lookout for bags amidst a fast-moving conveyor of recyclables. Gaffey said the plant has to stop its machinery at least a few times a week for workers to safely remove stuck bags.

MIRA President Thomas Kirk said that slows down plant operations and can contaminate other recycling commodities the plant sells, eroding their market value.

“They're really an annoyance and they border on a serious problem from time to time,” Kirk said.

A bill last year that would have required a fee for plastic bags at grocery stores failed. This year's bill requires a gradual transition to bags made with more recycled materials and for DEEP to create an agreement with retailers that will cut bag distribution in half by 2021.

Like the tire bill, the bag bill has critics that say it should be an EPR program. But the Connecticut Food Association, which represents grocery stores and other potentially affected businesses, argues changing the ingredients in plastic bags will be more expensive and result in poorer quality bags.

The association says educating consumers about existing bag recycling programs at various stores is a better option.

Mike Paine, president of East Granby waste hauler Paine's Inc. and chair of the National Waste and Recycling Association's Connecticut chapter, said he doesn't mind the idea of EPR, but worries about how DEEP might implement its strategies.

For example, if the agency eventually requires separate collection of plastic bags or glass or food waste, it could force his business to raise its prices to deal with the added complexity.

“It's not really specific as to what they're going to do,” Paine said.

Packaging waste

A third bill calls on DEEP to work with industry to reduce the volume and weight of consumer packaging. It is arguably the most complex legislation and could involve creating standards for a vast industry that exists far beyond Connecticut.

“My concern is, this is little Connecticut,” Paine said. “We're not going to dictate to China how toys are going to be packaged.”

DEEP's Sawyer acknowledges the complexity of a potential EPR program for packaging, but he argues it could have the greatest impact on the state reaching its goals.

“Developing any kind of EPR program requires extensive dialogue with all stakeholders,” he said. “In the draft plan, we call for that process of dialogue to continue over next couple of years.”

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