Most Cities in Connecticut Aren't Meeting Recycling Standards. Why?
What the state's best recyclers can teach us.
By Betsy Yagla
March 15, 2011
Eleven years after the deadline to recycle 40 percent of their waste, hardly any towns have reached that goal.
In 2009, eight of the state's 169 towns reached or surpassed 40 percent, according to state Department of Environmental Protection.
Some towns are really dedicated to recycling and others are significantly less so.
Not only is recycling important for the environment, it's also a money saver. Budget-strapped municipalities are looking to shed costs in any way possible, including selling off assets and laying off employees.
Most municipalities take their trash to the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority**, a quasi-state agency. There are a few other trash and recycling facilities in the state. Towns tend to pay a “tipping fee” between $65 and $100 per ton. They also pay for transport. But towns don't pay, or they pay a greatly reduced fee, for recycling.
“It's just common sense,” says Diane Duva assistant director for the state Department of Environmental Protection's Waste Engineering and Enforcement Division. “If you recycle more, you save money.”
Some discrepancy between the all-star recyclers and the losers may be attributed to the data. “We struggle with our data quality sometimes,” admits Duva. “Sometimes things are attributed incorrectly.”
And while more towns seemed to be doing a better job in 2009 than in 2008, that's not necessarily so. (The 2009 data is still raw, and some inconsistencies may be due to errors.) Instead of relying on data from the municipalities, as it did in 2008, the DEP is now getting it from the recycling facilities.
“There's an enormous disparity” in the state's recycling rates, Duva says. “We're just beginning to focus on this and understand how we can assist towns that do not have the right capacity. And we're trying to find out the underlying reason why they are not achieving the recycling rate we'd expect by now.”
In 1991, the state legislature made recycling mandatory for all municipalities. Two years later the state set the 40 percent by 2000 goal. But, by 2008 recycling was only up to 25 percent statewide. Nationally, the numbers are a bit better: 33.8 percent of trash is recycled.
The state now has an even more lofty goal: 58 percent by 2024. If all municipalities in Connecticut recycle 58 percent of their municipal solid waste (household and commercial waste) by that date, the state won't need to buy another landfill and/or another trash incinerator.
Not everyone believes that 58 percent is realistic or necessary.
“We have a 58-percent goal that was based on a waste stream that doesn't exist anymore,” says Hartford's recycling coordinator, Marilynn Cruz-Aponte. The 58 percent goal was drawn up in 2005, but the amount of waste municipalities can recycle has shrunk since then. Newspapers, for example, have shrunk in size, weight and circulation since 2005.
According to a 2010 recycling survey by New Britain, the total weight of the city's recycling dipped between 2008 and 2010. The survey attributes a big part of that decline to the dramatic drop in the New Britain Herald's circulation (from 15,000 daily copies in 2000 to 7,500 in 2010). At the same time, the Herald shrunk in size. Those newspaper changes alone meant a decrease in 800 tons of recyclable materials.
In addition to the change in newspapers, the legislature recently required grocery stores to add water bottles to their redemption centers, potentially removing hundreds of thousands of water bottles from residents' recycling bins.
And, Cruz-Aponte says that the recession has changed consumer habits and created less waste. These are all positive changes, but she says they make the 58-percent goal unrealistic. Her feelings were echoed by many contacted for this article.
Cruz-Aponte says it's the state's job to make progressive decisions to help towns get to 58 percent. “We can make it if we make really aggressive decisions about other waste streams, like yard waste and construction and demolition [waste]. But I don't think we'll get it from curbside waste streams. The DEP also needs to take a leadership role in making businesses do a better job of dealing with waste and food waste. There needs to be a real aggressive movement toward holding businesses accountable.”
Even so, most of Connecticut's 169 municipalities are floundering when it comes to recycling. According to the state's most recent recycling data, from 2009, five towns recycled a pathetic 10 percent or less of their waste: Ansonia (6.1 percent), Plainfield (7.3 percent), New Haven (9.1 percent), Lisbon (9.5 percent) and Pomfret (9.9 percent). The majority of the state's municipalities are hovering in the 20-percent range.
The towns that do a better job tend to be wealthy towns. A quick look at 2009's top 10 confirms that, with towns like New Canaan, Stonington, Westbrook and North Haven.
In West Hartford (37.8 percent in 2009), environmental services manager Dave Gabriele says, “We're in that socio-economic level where people are concerned about recycling and get it done. I talk to my counterparts in inner cities and some of the suburban areas with more of an urban atmosphere and they're amazed at the numbers we get compared to what their communities do.”
But that doesn't explain why some suburbs with more economically diverse populations, like Hamden and Stratford (33 percent in 2009 and 35 in 2008), are doing a decent job.
Stratford superintendant of solid waste, Gary Catalano, can only hazard a guess as to why Stratford does a good job. “The garbage museum is in Stratford,” he says. “So all the Stratford schools take the kids there and they probably go home and tell parents: ‘You have to recycle.'”
In general, says DEP senior environmental analyst Judy Belaval, it's not fair to compare one town's recycling rates to another because of demographic differences.
Richer towns, for example, have higher newspaper and magazine subscription rates. Those paper products are among the heaviest recyclable materials.
The 58-percent goal is supposed to include commercial recycling, so rural towns with only a few small businesses are at a disadvantage compared to cities with large trash- and recycling-generating businesses.
“Ideally, we should all get [to 58 percent], but the situations are so different in towns” that it's hard to hold them all to the same standard, Belaval says.
With that caveat in mind, the Advocate surveyed some of the state's best recyclers and some up-and-comers to ask how they do it.
Gold Star Programs
2009 rate: 37.8%
2008 rate: 41.6%
West Hartford has made recycling easier for its residents. West Hartford does single-stream recycling, meaning residents don't have to separate paper from glass and plastic. And when they upgraded to single-stream, West Hartford also upgraded the old 18-gallon recycling bins to 65- and 90-gallon bins. Those changes were implemented in June.
Trash is picked up weekly and recycling every other week.
“Intuitively we knew that when a person's recycling was full it would go into the trash,” environmental services manager Dave Gabriele says. “Now we've given them the capacity to put materials into another container that holds them for two weeks.” Some residents have even requested a second recycling barrel.
Gabriele's advice: “Make sure you provide capacities to meet the recycling targets. In our case, when we were handing out recycling barrels, because the federal goal is 50 percent [by 2015] and the state goal is 58 percent, we mandated that residents could not get recycling bins smaller than their refuse bin. It had to be equal or larger.”
2009 rate: 42.6%
2008 rate: 37.6%
Since 1992, Stonington has had a “pay-as-you-throw” user-based fee for trash pickup. The town will cart away recyclables for free, but town residents must pay $1.50 per 30-gallon bag of trash they put out.
“There's an immediate incentive: Let's pay attention to what we recycle,” says the town's Solid Waste Manager John Phetteplace.
Because people are paying for the trash they generate, they become conscientious about it. “You have to pay attention or you'll use a few [bags] a week,” Phetteplace says.
Phetteplace says his frustration with trying to increase Stonington's recycling rate is that town residents are so scrupulous about what they buy and what they toss, making it harder to raise his recycling percentage. The program, he believes, has caused residents to change their behavior.
“What doesn't show up in those figures is the reduction in [waste] generation. When you have a program like this, people are paying attention to that waste. When they shop, people don't want to bring home a lot of extra trash.”
Typically, when a community begins a user-based fee for trash, there's a 40 to 50 percent reduction in trash generation.
Few other towns in Connecticut do pay-as-you-throw pricing (Granby started in 2009). The DEP is just beginning to market this as a smart option.
“I think people should be taking a look at this because it works,” Phetteplace says. “I certainly believe in it.”
2009 rate: 34.4%
2008 rate: 35.4%
Hamden puts a lot of emphasis on educating town residents about recycling. The town has an enforcement officer who monitors residents' recycling and garbage. If someone's not up to par, he'll have a talk with residents who are home and leave notes and education brochures for those who are out.
“He will tell people that we won't pick up their garbage if they don't recycle,” says the town's recycling coordinator, Pamela Roach. “Usually that's enough. We are also looking into having an ordinance set up so we have the ability to fine.”
It's worth it to do the monitoring, Roach says, because it's costly when residents who should recycle don't. Hamden pays $65 per ton of garbage and $0 for recycling. In fiscal year 2009, the town paid $950,000 to dispose of all its trash.
Starting last year, Hamden moved from dual-stream to single-stream recycling. The town didn't have the money to buy larger recycling bins for all residents. Since a switch to single stream usually means more people will recycle and recycle more, Hamden allows residents to buy their own trash can — up to 32 gallons — to use as a recycling bin. Hamden provides stickers to put on those trash cans to signal that they hold recycling. The 5,000 stickers cost $1,700. That's small potatoes compared to the $670,000 it would have cost to buy new recycling bins for all town residents.
2009 rate: 17.4%
2008 rate: 19.4%
Nearly everyone in New Britain recycles.
Here's why: In the rollout to a new recycling program introduced in 2010, the city studied its residents' recycling habits. Then it sent them a letter saying “the recycling survey determined this property was (or was not) recycling.” The letter also explained the new program and that not recycling is against city ordinances.
Shortly after sending out those letters late last year, New Britain switched from dual-stream recycling — in which residents needed to keep their paper and plastic separate — to single-stream recycling, which allows residents to throw everything in one bin. The city also increased residents' recycling capacity by going from using 18-gallon bins to 65- and 90-gallon bins.
And, the city began enforcing fines for nonrecyclers.
A recent study done by the city shows that in 2010, only 61 percent of the city's homes were recycling at least once a month. In 2011, that number jumped to 90 percent, far surpassing the city's goal of reaching 75 percent compliance.
“The enforcement is limited, but it's real,” says public works director Mark Moriarty. Every month a staff member picks out 30 homes that didn't recycle before and haven't recycled since the program began (traceable by an electronic chip on the new bins). A staff member checks those 30 homes to see if they're vacant. In February, of the 30 nonrecyclers, only seven residences were occupied. Those seven received a written warning. Of the seven, five continued to put out trash, but not recycling. “We just sent them a $25 fine,” Moriarty says. (A third offense would get a $100 fine.)
Moriarty thinks the letters to residents were the key to success. They were offered in English, Polish and Spanish. There were several versions of the letters: for recyclers and nonrecyclers living in owner-occupied homes, locally owned rentals and out-of-state-owned rentals.
“Because it's such a diverse population we couldn't do a vanilla approach. We went the extra mile,” he says. “You need to be creative and know your community. For a community like New Britain, where recycling is not something that people have cared about, it made a tremendous impact.”
2009 rate: 14.8%
2008 rate: 6.5%
“We were doing an abysmal job,” says Marilynn Cruz-Aponte, Hartford's assistant to the director of public works.
Cruz-Aponte began working in Hartford in 2008. “I came with the goal of increasing diversion and making the solid-waste planning process for Hartford less costly. It's a big city and there was no attention paid to this area, which is a very costly sector. We're paying $3 million a year just for tipping [trash].”
In May of 2008, Cruz-Aponte instituted single-stream recycling and started a contract with a company called Recycle Bank. Recycle Bank provides communities with large recycling bins and then weighs each recycling bin before it's dumped into the truck. The more residents recycle, the more points they get. Those points can be used to collect awards like coupons to local stores.
Those incentives can be important in inner cities where residents have bigger worries than recycling.
Recycle Bank has helped the city and the city's residents deal with the financial crisis. Just last year the city saved nearly $300,000 in tipping fees (half of that savings went to Recycle Bank as payment), due to residents producing more recycling and less trash.
Before Recycle Bank started, Cruz-Aponte says the city's average was 150 pounds of recycling per household per year. Now it's up to 394 pounds.
“Our target goal is 450 pounds,” she says. “In very high recycling areas, like West Hartford, they get something like 650 pounds per year. But you're dealing with a wealthy population and they buy a lot of stuff. We're using a base of material in an economically disadvantaged community where wealth determines the amount of trash and the amount of recyclables.”
2009 rate: 11%
2008 rate: 9%
Like many cities and towns, New Haven recently switched to single-stream recycling. Instead of spending millions on new, larger recycling toters, New Haven is gradually giving the new toters out, one recycling route at a time.
Since the city's Westville neighborhood had the highest recycling rate it was the first asked to start using the large, 96-gallon trash bins as recycling bins and received new, smaller trash bins. Within just a few months, that neighborhood tripled their recycling rate, says sustainability director Christine Eppstein-Tang.
“What it means is if you do give people the opportunity to recycle more by providing more space and making it easier, that makes a difference,” she says.
Eppstein-Tang also says that larger bins devoted to recycling send a message. “The message is pretty clear: You have to recycle more than you throw out. When people complain they don't have enough space in their trash can, that's usually because they're not recycling or they're not recycling well.”
Eppstein-Tang hopes that the DEP will start a strong statewide education campaign about recycling to reach the 58 percent goal. “My perception is that people see recycling as something optional. No one I spoke with knew that not recycling is illegal. We have to get that message out.”
** Corrections to the article: The original caption for this image read that it pictured the Recycling Museum in Hartford, instead of the Trash Museum. And we identified the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority as the "Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority."