“Save As Your Throw”: A Concept Whose Time Has Come

by Krishna Winston

Currently president of the Jonah Center Board and chair of Middletown’s Resource Recycling Advisory Commission, Krishna Winston has been committed to environmental conservation since long before recycling became mandatory in the State of Connecticut in 1991. She served on the task force that designed Middletown’s first recycling program. In October of this year she spent sixteen hours going door to door on Middletown’s north side to inform residents about the new co-collection program beginning in November.

The Context

 Connecticut’s waste crisis became impossible to ignore once the MIRA trash-to-energy plant shut down in the summer of 2022, leaving 49 towns—representing about a third of the state’s trash—in the lurch. But the crisis has been in the making far longer. For decades the state DEP (now DEEP) has been setting targets for reducing waste, and time and again those targets have been missed. With more and more disposable and single-use items, along with packaging, much of it difficult or impossible to recycle, many residents’ trash carts are filled to overflowing. Because of contamination, single-stream recycling, originally intended to simplify and promote more recycling, has actually lowered the value of the material collected. To separate mixed recyclables into marketable commodities, material-recovery facilities (MRFs), like the one recently inaugurated by Murphy Road Recycling in Berlin’s industrial park, must be equipped with sophisticated and costly equipment imported from other countries. Whereas recycling once brought in some revenue, in recent years municipalities and hauling companies have been paying for recycling, and the cost keeps going up.Local Solutions

Under the leadership of Middletown’s Recycling Coordinator, Kim O’Rourke, the City has long been a State leader in the effort to reduce waste, winning numerous awards and serving as a model for other communities. Achievements and innovations include:

  • Programs to collect materials beyond the State recycling mandate
  • Establishment of the Swap Shack at the Recycling Center, “where items have a second life”
  • Creation of the first municipal satellite sites for collection of food scraps
  • Implementation of curbside food-scrap collection for restaurants in the City Sanitation District
  • Bi-annual community compost-bin sales and creation of a public Home Compost Bin Garden
  • Development of unique school waste systems and programs, including food-waste collection in school kitchens and transition to reusables in the food-service areas
  • Organization of the second Repair Café series in Connecticut
  • Adoption of a comprehensive program for recycling textiles
  • Thousands of educational programs and presentations for a wide variety of audiences
  • Participation in statewide organizations and in development of State waste policy.

A glance at the menu on the City’s recycling page reveals the breadth of the current waste-reduction measures, the educational presentations and written materials available, and the many services provided, some of them City-wide, others limited to the Sanitation District, whose waste and recycling are collected by the City rather than by private companies.

Making a Bigger Difference

As climate change becomes unmistakable, local landfill sites disappear, as the State’s remaining four incinerators approach capacity and become less efficient with age, as markets for recyclables vacillate, and the weight and volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) continues to grow, communities, the State, and advocates are looking for systemic change to control escalating costs and manage the waste stream more sustainably. After thirty years, it is clear that that recycling is not enough. We must reduce the amount of waste being generated.

The concept of “Pay as You Throw” or “Unit-based Pricing” has been around for a long time: residents are charged on the basis of how much waste they generate rather than paying a flat fee. Experience demonstrates that the most effective way to run the program is to require residents to purchase designated bags, with the price of each bag covering certain costs. Some communities include total costs in the bag price; others include disposal only, or a mix. Once residents have a financial incentive to reduce their waste, they do, just as utility charges give them an incentive to use less water, electricity, and fuel.

Last year, with a grant from DEEP, Middletown conducted a pilot program that entailed separating food scraps from household trash but—and this is the innovative element—collecting the two materials in one cart, thereby avoiding the expense and environmental impact of separate pick-ups. Food waste, which is heavy and wet, constitutes more than 20% of the standard waste stream; when mixed with trash, it makes the trash more expensive to transport. When disposed of in landfills, it is the third largest source of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than CO2.

In November Middletown’s program moved into its next phase, with separation for co-collection optional and the bags no longer free. The food scraps, in inexpensive 4- or 8-gallon green bags, go to nearby Quantum Biopower. The trash must go in larger and more expensive orange bags, the price of which includes the cost of the bag and the cost of disposal, currently in out-of-state landfills. Middletown has named its co-collection program “Save as You Throw” to emphasize two features: the basic sanitation fee charged to property-owners served by curbside collection has been reduced, and residents can save money by recycling more, separating their food scraps, and generating less trash.

And now the problem…

During the yearlong pilot co-collection program and in the immediate run-up to the November launch of the mandatory program, the City conducted extensive outreach, including community meetings, letters, social-media postings, printed household guides, door to door canvassing, phone calls, and numerous conversations with residents and landlords. The City provided information and explained the new system’s importance to residents. Despite this, a small, but vocal minority, is spreading misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories on social media platforms such as Facebook and Next Door.

The City understands that this program involves significant transition and is a work in progress. We are in a trash crisis. Instead of doing the same old thing and expecting the problem to just go away, the City is being proactive in offering solutions to the serious and worsening problem of waste. It is estimated that the Save As You Throw program will reduce waste by half and thereby reduce collective costs of trash disposal. Diverting food scraps from landfills and incinerators will save the nutrients they contain. In its first month, the program removed almost 4 tons of food scraps from the waste stream. This system will help the City manage waste more sustainably and over time control costs that would otherwise continue to escalate exponentially.

The Bottom Line

Saving resources for future generations and keeping our planet habitable depends on concerted action.  Systemic change is necessary to manage the State’s waste crisis. If you are interested in learning more about this program or getting involved in impactful change, please contact me (kwinston@wesleyan.edu). It is important to recruit more members of the community to support this waste-reduction effort in word and deed. As with all behavioral change, effective education and transparency hold the key to success.