Opinion: A sustainable future with PAYT – Greenwich Time

Town leadership has a critical decision to make regarding our waste management practices that will have serious fiscal, environmental and social repercussions. First Selectman Fred Camillo proposed two solutions — Pay As You Throw (PAYT) and tipping fees, but only PAYT will curb trash output significantly, while covering the budget shortfall due to new recycling costs. Under PAYT, everyone — residents, businesses and tax-exempt entities — is incentivized to reduce waste. On the other hand, a tipping fee paid by haulers will do nothing to encourage waste reduction. Haulers will pass the cost onto customers, while other residents will be burdened with a regressive permit fee to dispose waste at Holly Hill.

Last year, more than 36,000 tons of trash was trucked from Greenwich to waste-to-energy plants in Peekskill, N.Y., and Bridgeport to be incinerated at a cost to taxpayers of $4 million. Burning trash for energy is inefficient and is not clean energy. The dirty truth is that incinerators are detrimental to public health and our environment, affecting air and soil quality and disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities. Further, aging incinerators are expensive to maintain, risky to finance and costly to upgrade. The current model is not sustainable. It is time to turn off the tap and reduce our waste, but how?

Education and expanded diversion opportunities are necessary, but alone they are not enough to effectively reduce our waste stream. There have been significant efforts to educate the public, but recycling rates have not budged. A recent audit of trash on the tipping floor of Holly Hill revealed significant quantities of recyclables mixed in with trash, and recyclables are often contaminated. Our community can and must do better.

According to a 2015 CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection waste characterization study, food comprised a little more than 22 percent of the municipal waste stream in Connecticut, up from 13 percent in 2010. More than 40 percent of recoverable materials in residential trash are compostable organics, and this figure skyrockets to 68 percent for restaurants and 51 percent for grocery stores.

In light of these alarming statistics, our community needs to focus on reducing food waste at its source, directing otherwise good food to feed the hungry and lastly, composting what is left. Source reduction means cutting the volume of wasted food generated from the start through smarter planning, cooking and storage. Next we should support the food insecure, through organizations like Food Rescue US, which partners with local donors of surplus food to provide meals via receiving agencies. To date, more than 28 million pounds of food were rescued at a value of $45 million in Fairfield County, but PAYT will spur more schools, country clubs, hospitals, eateries and grocers to donate, in order to cut their high rates of food waste.

After source reduction and donation, composting should be utilized. Backyard composting is an easy option, or residents and businesses can hire Curbside Composting or Action Containers to pick up collected food scraps. Alternatively, a voluntary, dropoff food scrap recycling pilot for residents will launch in Greenwich next month, an initiative organized by DPW, Conservation Commission, Greenwich Recycling Advisory Board and Waste Free Greenwich. PAYT will propel efforts in our community to compost food scraps through these strategies to reduce output and minimize the cost of trash disposal.

Large-scale producers in Greenwich are currently exempt from state regulations requiring recycling of their organic materials. Some grocers, such as Whole Foods and Kings, voluntarily donate and compost, but the majority of food waste from Greenwich businesses ends up on the tipping floor at a cost to taxpayers. Under PAYT, the burden would shift to commercial producers, making them accountable for the waste they generate and encouraging more responsible management of organics.

Importantly, PAYT also extends this responsibility equally to the 968 tax-exempt entities in Greenwich that currently get a free ride for wasteful practices at taxpayers’ expense. While the majority of independent schools compost food scraps, Greenwich Public Schools lag behind. Lunchroom waste audits proved that 31 tons of uneaten produce could be composted annually with an effective system. As the largest institution in town, our public schools must make waste reduction a priority by implementing composting, as well as food sharing, donation and source reduction. Beyond our schools, all tax-exempt entities mustshould commit to stronger recovery efforts. Currently, most unused food from country club banquets, church gatherings and hospital meals ends up in Dumpsters but should be diverted to donations and composting.

There is no accountability in the current system for residents, businesses or tax-exempt entities, but PAYT — unlike tipping fees — could change that. PAYT promotes responsible waste management, stopping needless food waste at taxpayers’ expense and encouraging all in our community to divert food scraps using recovery strategies. It is time to rethink our waste system for a more sustainable future, one that is possible with PAYT.

Julie DesChamps is founder of Waste Free Greenwich.