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When it comes to burning trash, Connecticut is on top -- or at the bottom, depending on how you look at it. We burn more trash per person than any other state in the country. That's not an accident: It's because Connecticut made a conscious decision 40 years ago to transform its waste management by phasing out landfills and investing in incinerators.
But thanks to a new bill introduced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, we now have the opportunity to transform again, away from burning trash and toward the "three R's": reduce, reuse, recycle.
Incinerators are expensive to build, operate and maintain so in 1973, the legislature created a quasi-public agency, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA). CRRA was given bonding authority, which it used to build four of Connecticut's six incinerators. CRRA then entered into generous long-term contracts with cities and towns that guaranteed years of revenue to pay back those bonds.
While that plan built the incinerator infrastructure we use today, it also worked against efforts to waste less and recycle more. Because incinerators must operate at or close to capacity, there is a constant need to "feed the beast." As a result, even with the introduction of single-stream recycling in many communities across the state, our recycling rate has only inched up a few percentage points over the past two decades.
In the 1970s, incinerators were seen as a better alternative to landfills. However, the decision we face today is not between burning or burying our waste -- it is between seeing the material we throw away as waste, or seeing it as material with a market value if handled properly.
What we burn in incinerators is "waste" only because we treat it as waste.
Six years ago, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection did a detailed study of what is being thrown away in Connecticut. They found 27 percent of it is organic material that can be composted. Twenty-six percent is paper, and another 21 percent is plastic, metal or glass, all of which can be recycled.
That adds up to 74 percent of Connecticut's waste stream that we can reuse, compost or recycle, and there's more we can recover from the remaining 26 percent.
There's no good reason to stick with our current system, which is bad for the environment and public health. While incineration reduces our need for landfills, it does not eliminate them.
Connecticut still generates more than half a million tons of toxic incinerator ash every year, all of which ends up in landfills. Incinerators also release air pollution including toxic chemicals like mercury and dioxin -- one of the most toxic chemicals known to science.
Our current system does not make good economic sense either. Waste is expensive, whether you pay for subscription collection service or your tax dollars go to municipal collection and disposal.
Wasting less and recycling more saves taxpayers money because, at the end of the day, you have to pay someone to take trash off your hands, but you can sell recyclables. Keeping reusable and recyclable material circulating in our economy is good for business.
Before Connecticut even passed its first-in-the-nation mattress recycling law last year, two new mattress recycling business popped up, providing good green jobs.
Senate Bill 27, introduced by Gov. Malloy with the support of both state House and Senate leadership, moves Connecticut in the right direction.
The bill sets the ambitious but achievable goal of keeping 60 percent of our material out of landfills and incinerators by 2024. It also renames and refocuses CRRA, taking away its statewide authority, and creates "Recycle CT," a non-profit organization with the goal of promoting recycling research and education in the state. Finally, the bill starts the process of retiring the incinerator in Hartford and replacing it with the infrastructure we need to hit our waste reduction and recycling goals.
The bill has won the support of consumer and environmental groups, cities and towns, and theGeneral Assembly's Environment Committee, which gave the bill a favorable recommendation. It deserves the full support of the General Assembly.
Just as we transformed our waste management strategy 40 years ago, it is time to transform again, from managing waste to managing material, moving us closer to zero waste.
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