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Hartford Is Burning Its Recycling, And It's Costing The City $30K A Month

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
MIRA's downtown Hartford facility on the banks of the Connecticut River.

That recycling you put out each week in the blue bin may not be going where you think it is. 

Because of contamination in curbside bins, the city of Hartford is now redirecting most of its recycling to a nearby incinerator, which means tons and tons of recyclable materials are going to waste while the city spends about $30,000 a month trying to deal with the problem.

Over the last two years, the amount of material sent for recycling in Hartford has dropped by about 75%.

Michael Looney, director of Hartford’s Department of Public Works, said the culprit is contaminated recycling bins, which are loaded up with trash and ruin any chance of a recycler accepting the material.

“The only other place for it to go if it can’t go through the recycling facility is, obviously, to the incinerator,” Looney said. “A significant portion of recyclables are now going to the incinerator.”

Recycling rates in Hartford began a major drop last fall. Loads were getting rejected for contamination, and Looney said that peeled DPW employees off other projects like road repair because workers needed to reload trucks with rejected recycling and ship it elsewhere.

Hartford handles curbside recycling for about 30,000 housing units a week. By contract, that waste gets sent to the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) in Hartford.

Just a couple of years ago, Looney said the city annually sent more than 5,000 tons of recyclables to MIRA. “Last fiscal year that dropped to about 3,300,” Looney said. “This year, we’re probably on track for about 1,000 or 1,200. So, there’s been a significant decrease.”

“In any recycling commodity market, you can’t sell garbage,” said Tom Gaffey, director of recycling and enforcement at MIRA. “There’s no market for garbage.”

“Hartford … like many big cities, has a serious problem with controlling contamination in their recycling,” Gaffey said. “Consequently, when the truck arrives at our facility and tips their load, the load is highly contaminated and we have to reject the load.”

It’s an international problem playing out locally. When countries like China stopped taking a large portion of the world’s recycling in 2018, that change eventually worked its way down to local markets. 

“China just got tired of importing garbage,” Gaffey said. “They stopped it and other markets, whether they’re in India or the United States, or anywhere else in the world … they’re not accepting garbage or contamination in these loads either.”

Because of that, Looney said when Hartford picks up curbside loads they assume will be rejected, the city is opting to burn the material at MIRA’s nearby waste-to-energy plant.

“A lot of our recycling loads have ended up going over there primarily because, in the field, something happens where we see something that goes into the truck out of a container that we know is going to be flagged,” Looney said. “We just take it straight to the plant if we know that the load is certainly going to be rejected at the recycling facility.”

It’s a costly decision. MIRA doesn’t charge customers a tip fee for recycling, but it does charge for trash. And now that Hartford is sending more recycling-turned-garbage to MIRA’s incinerator, Looney estimated the city is incurring about $30,000 in extra costs each month. 

“We’re taking measures to try to combat that. I’m hoping to get the rate of acceptance higher as we go through the spring and into next fiscal year, because it obviously has a significant financial effect on us,” he said.

Tom Kirk, MIRA’s president, said the financial value of a contract with his agency diminishes if a city has contaminated recycling. That’s because cities have to pay to get rid of bad recycling loads, which otherwise would have had no disposal fee if they were clean. 

“It’s really just a balancing act,” Kirk said. “The better you do with recycling, the more advantageous MIRA’s contract is.”

Some towns have decided to opt out of that contract. East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc said her city will stop using MIRA and will send its trash and recycling to a private company beginning July 1. 

Leclerc said East Hartford has struggled with contaminated recycling loads and that the rate they’ll pay for trash disposal at a private facility will be cheaper than what MIRA would have charged. 

“We needed to do some cost avoidance, and this was the easiest method for us to do rather quickly,” Leclerc said. 

She said the private vendor, Murphy Road Recycling, will also deal with contaminated loads, which takes some burden off the town. But Leclerc said East Hartford’s new contract also contains a zero-dollar tip fee for recycling, so it’s still in the town’s best interest to do a much better job cleaning up those blue bins. 

“We realize that as a community we are doing a very poor job of separating recycling from municipal solid waste,” Leclerc said.

Leclerc said East Hartford will pay a recycling coordinator to spot check bins and educate people about what’s recyclable. 

Hartford’s Michael Looney said the city is also working to educate residents about what goes in and what stays out of the blue bin. And while he says education is key, he cautioned there’s no overnight solution to the global recycling problem. 

“Obviously, this is not a situation we’d like to have continue,” Looney said. “We’re going to work more on education, but, again, a lot of this is being driven by forces from a national and international level.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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