Earlier this year, about 1,000 households in Meriden received colored bags and the choice to spend a little more time using those bags to recycle old food. This initiative was part of a pilot program to track the possibility of recycling so-called “organics” in Connecticut.
The idea, which was funded with a $40,000 government grant, is twofold: make it easier to recycle food waste — residents can throw colored bags into the same trash can they already roll onto the sidewalk every week — but also see how many people would voluntarily choose to do so.
State data shows Meriden’s experiment is encouraging but leaves significant room for growth.
“We found that after a four-month pilot project, about 24% of the available food waste was collected,” said Kristen Brown, vice president of WasteZero, a North Carolina-headquartered company that works with government officials to reduce waste.
WasteZero tracked data for the Meriden pilot project.
Government officials are closely following the results of the Meriden project, which were announced at a recent meeting Connecticut Coalition for Sustainable Materials Management.
Getting food from trash cans is one way to keep costs down in an industry where money pretty much equates to weight. The heavier the load of garbage and the farther it has to go, the more expensive its disposal.
Recycling old food is one way to make these trash cans lighter.
“This adds to the cost of managing our waste,” said Cathy Dykes, Commissioner for the Department of Energy and the Environment. Earlier this year“which strains municipal budgets and increases the cost of living.”
Trash Bag Tracking
With the imminent closure of a major waste-to-energy plant in Hartford, the costs of waste disposal, which will ultimately be borne by residents and taxpayers, are only expected to rise in Connecticut.
And now the Meriden pilot project provides a glimpse of what could happen when residents have the ability to recycle leftover food. By scanning and tracking the colored packets, officials could monitor participation down to the household level. On average, recycled food waste bags weighed about six pounds.
Overall, Meriden officials estimate that about 13 tons of food waste was recycled during the four-month pilot project. Brown said about 98% of homes returned at least one bag, but consistent weekly engagement for four months was more of a challenge, she said.
“It really hovered between 16% and 65% on most days,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, I think, the rankings are… just under 50% of the participants across the board.”
Brown said some households overworked for the first two weeks and then stopped. There were households that recycled for a couple of weeks, didn’t recycle for a few more weeks, and then started to recycle again.
“There were a lot of residents who wanted to continue,” Brown said. She added that efforts to communicate with residents could be improved, and “voluntarily speaking” is really not enough.”
“It was a volunteer program,” she said. “We didn’t get all the houses involved.”
DEEP’s Dykes said in an emailed statement that she hopes the work in Meriden “will help the state gain momentum to expand its food waste collection programs.”
She said the state is optimistic that more cities will experiment with food waste recycling in the future to see what works and what doesn’t.
To do this, Dykes said DEEP will fund “similar solutions through the Sustainable Materials Management Grants Program, for which we will announce grants over the next few weeks.”