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News

Hartford Slowly Reducing Contaminated Recycling

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Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public

The problem of garbage-filled recycling bins continues to foul up efforts to boost recycling levels in Connecticut’s capital city.

Public records show Hartford is recycling more material since Connecticut Public reported on a major drop-off in recycling loads earlier this year, but the city still burned about 75 percent of its curbside recyclables from May to the end of July 2021.

Michael Looney, director of public works for the city of Hartford, said the ongoing problem is that some people treat recycling bins like a second garbage can — mixing non-recyclable household trash with the glass, paper, and cardboard that, otherwise, would hold reuse value.

“We’re still battling the problem of contamination,” Looney said. “If they have no more room, [residents] may be trying to put some of this stuff in the recycling bin just so that they can dispose of it somehow.”

And when a few people dump illegally, that costs everyone in the city more.

Hartford contracts with the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, or MIRA, for waste management. MIRA doesn’t charge the city when a truck drops off recyclables.

But MIRA has a fee of $105 per ton for tipping truckloads full of trash.

“If the loads are clean, they just go to the recycling facility that MIRA oversees, and that is zero dollars per ton,” Looney said. “When the load is contaminated and we have to go to the waste-to-energy plant, that’s when we have to pay.”

Hartford’s DPW handles roughly one-third of the city’s waste, with the remaining trash from business, industry and certain apartments picked up by commercial haulers, which are harder to track.

But data show contamination in city-collected bins is a costly problem.

From May through roughly the end of July, Hartford spent $113,039.57 to get rid of contaminated recycling. DPW officials said nearly 1,200 tons of material were rejected or collected and disposed of as contaminated recycling during this time frame. The agency recorded about 400 tons recycled.

“Most of the recyclable material that’s picked up in Hartford, at least for the last, I’d say, nine months — perhaps longer — has been going to the burn plant, because … the quality just has not been acceptable,” said Peter Egan, MIRA’s director of operations and environmental affairs, during a recent board meeting. “It’s more garbage than not.”

Looney said the city made a “budget transfer” within the existing DPW budget to cover recycling losses from May through July.

For now, he said the department has not pursued additional budget authorization to pay for the problem.

But he said the contamination issue is only going to get more costly to taxpayers. That’s because in July, MIRA raised its tipping fee for trash from $91 per ton to $105.

“Obviously, from a financial standpoint, there’s … more pressure to get as many loads clean and to the recycling facility as possible,” Looney said.

Cleaning Up The Blue Bin

While the majority of Hartford’s curbside recycling is still getting burned, MIRA records indicate Hartford’s DPW is recycling more and that public education campaigns may be starting to resonate with some residents.

In April, the city and Hartford’s private haulers sent a combined 49 tons to get recycled, according to MIRA records.

By May, city trucks alone had sent nearly 100 tons to get recycled. As the year went on, DPW’s numbers got larger. By June and July, Hartford trucks sent 173 tons and 136 tons, respectively, of recyclables to MIRA.

MIRA data also show fewer loads sent to the recycling plant are rejected. From May 2021 through the end of July, the city sent 114 loads of recycling to the plant. Only three were turned away.

“The City of Hartford’s deliveries have improved,” said Tom Gaffey, director of recycling and enforcement at MIRA. “We have had very few issues with contamination.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the city has been “self-censoring” its recycling loads to avoid the time and money involved in reloading and hauling tons of rejected recycling to MIRA’s nearby burn plant.

“Our Department has been doing a lot to try to educate the community,” Bronin said during a recent MIRA board meeting. “They are now inspecting those loads very carefully when they get them. And, in addition, have conducted an extensive public education campaign.”

Looney said the city is also researching the problem and has outfitted some city trucks with computerized technology that allows drivers to easily log the location of contaminated recycling bins.

He said the study has pinpointed two problem spots in Hartford.

One is in the North End of Hartford, in neighborhoods around the intersection of Garden and Mather streets. The other is in the South End, with contamination issues popping up between Maple Avenue, Franklin Avenue, and homes north of Goodwin Park near Barry Square.

That study, combined with public education tactics, have prompted conversations with residents about recycling.

“We’re at the point now where we’re leaving cans,” Looney said. When the resident calls and asks why it wasn’t picked up, the city uses it “as an opportunity for education of what’s allowed to be recycled,” he said.

Looney said the city will continue to work on educating residents living in the problem spots through conversations and flyers.

“It appears that what we are doing is starting to bear fruit,” Looney said.

“I’m hopeful that we’re getting back on the right track,” he said, “but it’s still going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take time.”