Connecticut’s trash future unclear after closure of processing plant

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, Conn.

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, Conn. (Ryan Caron King/CT Public)

The imminent closure of a major trash plant in Hartford has set off urgent debate about the future of Connecticut’s waste.

And one big question has emerged: Who decides what’s next for the state’s garbage?

“We have a problem with life cycles,” said Lyle Wray, with the Capitol Region Council of Governments, a coalition of town leaders from about 40 municipalities in Greater Hartford.

Wray said the current life cycle of Connecticut’s waste infrastructure dates back to the 1970s, when planners decided to ditch landfills and, instead, burn trash to make power.

“The solid waste system designed in the ’70s probably had a 50-year life cycle, if we were honest,” Wray said.

Now that system is falling apart. Nearly 50 towns choose to send their trash to the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority or MIRA. MIRA burns that garbage, but it says it will soon close its Hartford plant because of money and mechanical problems.

That means hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage could suddenly have no place to go.

“Ultimately, we want to ensure that Connecticut can maintain self-sufficiency in the way that we manage our disposal,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We don’t want to just be relying on other communities in faraway states to handle our garbage.”

Dykes said Connecticut’s waste future boils down to two things: finding new disposal sites for garbage and reducing what we throw away.

But Tom Kirk, president of MIRA, said good policy needs to be in place to make sure that happens. Otherwise, towns will just chase the cheapest option for getting rid of their trash.

“And that, today, is putting it on a truck or train and sending it west,” Kirk said. “That will not change until there is either a regulatory statutory restriction against dealing with your garbage that way, or the economics change.”

For years, MIRA has functioned as the state’s “public option” for trash by allowing towns to pool their resources and drive down disposal costs.

But as MIRA goes away, lawmakers worry it and the state aren’t doing enough to articulate what policies Connecticut needs to manage its garbage within state borders.

“I don’t think anyone is leading right now,” state Rep. Mary Mushinsky (D-Wallingford) told Dykes during a recent legislative meeting. “And I do see the system falling apart.”

In mid-2020, Gov. Ned Lamont terminated a proposed deal to renovate MIRA’s facility. It’s cost to taxpayers could have been as high as $330 million. Lamont said that was too much.

In a recent interview with Connecticut Public Radio, Dykes said she stands by that decision.

“That facility was in too advanced a state of deterioration. It’s a very old technology. If I had $330 million, it’s not what I would put into. And it’s not the place I would put it,” she said.

Since then, Dykes said her agency has worked to streamline permitting and entice private developers to come to Connecticut. DEEP and towns are also partnering to cut down trash through more recycling and getting food out of the trash bin.

But MIRA’s future is still unclear.

Dykes said it’s still too early to tell if state taxpayers will have to foot more of the bill to build out more in-state disposal capacity.

“I don’t think we’re at a point right now when we know if there’s some additional tax subsidy that is going to be needed in order to move a project forward,” Dykes said.

But Wray, with the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said the cost of replacing a plant with as big of a footprint as MIRA’s is beyond what towns alone could cover.

He’s calling on the governor, DEEP and the legislature to step up.

“Because of action that we’re not taking, we’re going to get into more uncertainty. And I think one of our jobs in the public sector is to manage certainty,” Wray said. “The real deal is that we need state leadership to refresh the solid waste system in the state.”

The legislature is considering setting up a task force on the issue. But MIRA officials warn the decades-old facility could break down any day.

Because like trash, one other thing that never stops flowing is time.

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