Photo: Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media
The collapse of the market for recyclable material may soon cause major changes – and a bigger commitment – in the way Connecticut residents separate their waste for curbside collection.
With one of the worst redemption rates in the United States for cans and glass, state lawmakers this year are poised to finally double the nickel-deposit law to 10 cents per item, and for the first time in the 39-year-old program include non-carbonated beverages such as wine, distilled spirits, sports drinks and iced teas.
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Experts say that raising the deposit charges and expanding the beverage types, are the best ways to increase the state’s dismal – 50-percent – return rate, while providing clean material for reuse. Currently, even clean glass picked up at the curb is mostly destined as top dressing for out-of-state landfills.
Cans, bottles, paper goods and plastics are choking the state’s collection industry, and a lack of adherence to the recycling rules on the part of under-educated, or uncaring consumers is exacerbating the problem, said Jennifer Heaton-Jones, executive director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, in the 11-town region including Danbury.
“If we expand the bottle bill to wine and spirits, we would be providing a much more sustainable system to collect it,” Heaton-Jones said Friday. “Glass in the blue bin does not work, no matter what. Garbage and recycling should be more like a consumer’s utility cost than anything else. We do need to increase the reason for people to bring it back.”
Even so-called nips, the tiny booze containers that litter roadsides, would be subject to deposits.
Heaton-Jones said that the so-called single-stream recycling, in the big blue curbside is great in theory, but in reality, too many people contaminate their weekly collections with everything from empty propane tanks to rubber garden hoses, or even inappropriate glass, such as baking dishes.
“I don’t think we should have ever gone to single stream,” she said. “If everyone is recycling right and putting in only items they should, single stream works, but right now we have high contamination, low-grade-value material and high costs.”
What environmental experts say the state needs the most is increased consumer awareness on the recycling industry, where over the last year the end of China’s acceptance of material has resulted in soaring costs for local single-stream collections. After years of generating revenue for towns and cities, recycling pickups now cost many local governments more than trash pickups.
On Monday, the legislative Environment Committee will hear testimony on a variety of bills, from increasing the deposit charge, to creating fees on plastic bags; and establishing a process by which producers of paper and packaging materials would be required to develop better recycling systems and relieve cities and towns of the burden. Another bill would give handlers of recyclable plastic, glass and metal cans, including super markets and regional redemption centers, more money.
Lee Sawyer, director of material management planning for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said it’s important that producers share more of the response to the market turnaround. A year ago, towns and cities were still making about $20 a ton for recyclables. Now it’s costing many municipalities more than $75 a ton to dispose of recyclables.
“We’re at a point where we have some difficult choices before us,” Sawyer said. “Waste disposal and recycling costs are up, and at the same time our infrastructure needs significant levels of investment. One thing we can do is focus on waste reduction, and try to make some changes to reduce the amount of waste.” He said Massachusetts has a system of unit pricing in which residents purchase special bags to meter trash, as does North Stonington, in eastern Connecticut.
Composting kitchen waste is another major area for reduction. On Friday, the legislative Environment Committee was expected to vote in favor of legislation that if approved in the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont would create a trial program for curbside collection of food waste.
In the Danbury region – including the towns of Bethel, Brookfield, Bridgewater, Kent, Newtown, New Milford, New Fairfield, Redding, Ridgefield and Sherman – such trials have already proven that households can not only separate out glass from the single-stream recycling program, but can also separate food waste for composting, Heaton-Jones said.
“We want access to high-value materials,” Sawyer said. “Single stream is currently not providing that value. Cities and towns and residents are paying the tab. It’s a huge challenge. We need to continue to recycle. We need to look at the way the system is financing this. We need to introduce materials into commerce.”
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