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Waste Land

When You Take Out The Trash, This Is Where It Ends Up

August 14, 2006
By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

It burns the nostrils and stings the throat, this stench simmering from the floor of the cavernous trash-to-energy plant in Hartford's South Meadows.

From your kitchen wastebasket to the garbage heap, this is what a tossed banana peel, a discarded detergent bottle and old phone book look like - multiplied by the 70 towns that haul it away to the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority's Mid-Connecticut Project.

Reams of paper. Bags of clothes. Computers, cellphones and mattresses. Even fistfuls of loose change. The trash habits of our throw-away culture are astonishing. And few know this better than John Romano, who has a bird's-eye view of the hot mess brought in daily.

"Anything you can imagine, anything you can throw out is here," says Romano, the facility's manager. On a steamy Friday morning, he looks out over the "tip floor," which a steady stream of garbage trucks is filling up.

From his perch above this 4,000 tons of waste, he points out what he means: the front bumper of a car, a stack of wood planks, a child's plastic riding toy, a blue beach cooler.

"The way we go through material as Americans, I mean, it's incredible," says Romano, who first gives his age as "old enough" before allowing he's 61.

"Other people [in other countries] hold on to something for years. We change with the market. I buy my iPod today, but if next year there's a better one, where's that old one going? In the trash."

That mindset translates to about 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day. Nationwide, it adds up to more than 236 million tons of trash a year - up more than 50 percent from what Americans produced in 1980, reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We have groups that come here [from overseas], and they're just shocked to see the amount of waste," says Romano. "We've had groups from Japan, Korea; we had one in from Africa. Their waste streams are totally different from ours. They look at it and go, `No, no, no, no, no. We don't see any of this, any of that.'

"Their recycling practices are a lot more extensive than ours. They utilize everything."

The Hartford plant is one of six trash-to-energy facilities in the state trying to extract some good out of our disposable culture's habits. Pulled along on two conveyors, the 830,000 tons of trash dumped here annually is separated for metals, recyclables and nonburnable waste, with the rest shredded into 6-inch pieces that get burned to make energy.

About 2,000 tons of burnable waste is combusted here daily, producing about 1,440 megawatt hours of power.

Dentyne gum packaging, Poland Spring bottles, milk cartons, Federal Express envelopes. All chugging along the conveyor to be reborn as electricity, a better environmental fate than joining the mountain of waste in the landfills of yesteryear.

Still, it's astounding. Even for Romano, a man who has been working with waste, one way or another, for nearly 20 years. He has seen us get on the recycling bandwagon in the early '90s and seen the efforts wane in recent years.

When a statewide recycling program was established in the late 1980s, the effort was reflected in the trash stream over the next few years.

"We were more conscientious. But then, like anything, over the years ...," Romano says, finishing the sentence with a shrug of the shoulders that says it all.

Recycling doesn't just mean washing out aluminum cans and folding cardboard boxes. Romano sees bags of clothes, abandoned toys, perfectly good items that could get a second life by being donated to places like Goodwill. Coats, for example, come through the waste stream at the end of each winter. Not all of them, he says, can be so worn that they can't keep a needy body in a local shelter warm for a season.

"Oh, the coins. It's the coins that fascinate me," he says of the nickels and dimes and pennies that litter the heaps like confetti. "People, I guess, don't like pennies."

The Hartford plant isn't equipped to extract them. But he has heard of other plants that pull in as much as $2,000 in coins a week.

In 20 years, the biggest change in what we're throwing away has to be in electronics, Romano says. Technology evolves so rapidly these days that it seems it's always out with the old.

"Bigger and better, bigger and better," he says.

Now, with the advent of HDTV, Romano predicts the next few years will see a lot of old televisions on the curb.

The good news, says Paul Nonnemacher, spokesman for CRRA, is that most people know their old electronics shouldn't be headed for the garbage.

"Half of all the calls and e-mails we get from the public ask the same question: What do I do with my old computer? When's the next recycling program? They should be recycling. I think most people understand that, which is why they ask the second question more than the first."

Another question that comes into the agency but isn't always as easy to answer: I accidentally threw out my [fill in the blank]. Can I come down there and try to find it?

"They'll tell me, `I know what my garbage bag looks like,'" Romano says. "Believe me, that's a quote: I know what my garbage bag looks like."

He laughs at this. In the sea of brown sacks and white plastic bags, "Which one is yours? Has it got your name on it?"

He feels for those folks. Everyone has absent-mindedly tossed out something of value at one time or another - a family heirloom, valuable jewelry, important documents. "If you say I threw it out, and they picked it up Monday - nah, it's gone."

But if the caller can follow into the plant the exact truck that picked up the trash bag in question, Romano will let them onto the floor, with an employee, to sort through the heap.

When that truck pulls in and dumps its contents, he says, "They definitely want to die. I mean, they can't believe it. You don't understand what 3, 4 tons of waste is until you see it pushed out of a truck."

Maybe two out of 10 people find what they're looking for, he says.

About five years ago, an elderly woman called in a panic. Her husband had trashed a paper bag stuffed with several hundred dollars - money the couple had been saving to pay bills. The garbage truck took off before they could retrieve it.

"We put a couple of guys out on the floor. I was there, too," he says. "We spread the load out in the corner, and we looked through it."

The woman pointed to something. A worker hoisted it up.

"Sure enough, that was it. All the money was there," says Romano, smiling at the memory. "Oh, she was elated. They were almost [in] tears.

"We were very happy about that."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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