A series of public meetings are scheduled for residents to learn about ‘SMART’ as a possible new approach to West Hartford’s waste management.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford is considering a major transformation of the town’s waste management and the public’s input will be critical as the process moves forward, beginning with three upcoming public meetings.
Director of Public Works John Phillips is confident that a “Save Money and Reduce Trash” (SMART) program will help dramatically reduce the amount of waste generated and at the same time save money for the town and for residents. A key aspect of a SMART program would mean that trash collection would no longer be paid for through taxes, but rather would be funded through the sale of municipal trash bags.
If implemented, a 30-gallon bag would cost $2 and would be available in grocery, drug, and other stores where residents typically purchase plastic trash bags. A tall kitchen bag (the 13-gallon size that fits in most standard kitchen trash barrels) would cost $1.25, and smaller bags would cost $0.80. The town would receive the money from the sale of the bags, and that in turn would fund the trash removal budget. Although the contents would have to be placed in the muncipal bags, curbside collection of the green barrels would not be changed.
“It’s a pocketbook issue for most people,” Phillips said. But although people may initially bristle at the thought of having to “pay” for their trash collection through the purchase of bags, he said that most residents will likely save money.
The bags are slightly more expensive than what most people currently buy – but the weekly additional cost of bags would be less than a cup of coffee. Households currently pay approximately $200 per year through their taxes for waste disposal, Phillips said.
Phillips wants to communicate and wants the public to listen before any decisions are made. “It’s important to keep an open mind,” he said.
“The public perception is that it’s garbage, and they shouldn’t have to pay to get rid of it,” said Phillips.
Phillips hopes for a good turnout at the upcoming public information sessions, and he plans to explain how a SMART program will work and the financial considerations, as well as why it’s necessary to reduce waste. There’s a state mandate to divert 60 percent of waste into recycling, composting, reuse by 2024 (the current level is 35 percent), but it’s not just a requirement that is prompting West Hartford and other municipalities to look at alternatives.
“Our community, like many others throughout the nation but especially in the Northeast, is facing increasing cost for disposal of waste. It is imperative for West Hartford that we not stay complacent. We need to determine as a community the most cost effective and environmentally responsible way to handle this issue in the coming years,” Mayor Shari Cantor said.
The state is rapidly losing capacity to incinerate its trash, Phillips said. Existing plants may be rebuilt, Phillips said, but “we’ll never build another incinerator, never site another landfill. Where will it go? What will the transportation costs be?” said Phillips. It’s an environmental issue as well. “Do we really want to throw waste in someone’s backyard hole? Is burning something we really should rely on?” he asked.
Existing methods of diverting waste to recycling aren’t going far enough. “We need to deal with our capacities. We have no choice but to deal with waste,” said Phillips.
Kristen Brown, vice president of municipal partnerships with WasteZero, has been working as a consultant for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) educating residents and implementing SMART programs throughout the state. “It’s a mechanism to make people think,” she said.
The larger communities throughout the state, the ones with public trash services, are being targeted for SMART programs, she said. Both West Hartford and New Britain are in the second phase of the process, where stakeholder and public outreach are taking place.
Other Connecticut communities that have participated in the first phase of the process, most of which are also moving to the next step, are Bridgeport, Waterbury, Milford, Hartford, Enfield, Farmington, New London, Groton, Meriden, Manchester, Stamford, North Haven, and Shelton.
Brown said that statistics indicate that most West Hartford residents will likely not even fill one 30-gallon bag per week under a pay as you throw program. Current per capita waste production in West Hartford is 710 pounds per year – approximately 20,000 tons per year for the town as a whole – and that’s likely to drop by 40 percent the moment a SMART program is implemented.
Residents would think twice about ensuring that they are recycling all they can – including textiles. “The average person throws away 85 pounds of textiles per year,” Brown said. There are places throughout the area that will accept used textiles right now, and the ultimate hope is to incorporate textile, and food waste recycling into the SMART program.
Many residents have expressed a desire for weekly rather than biweekly recycling, but that would carry a $1 million price tag. The savings generated through SMART could fund the extra pick-up, Phillips said.
Brown said that about 45 percent of communities in Massachusetts and a significant perecentage of communities in Maine already have SMART programs. Rhode Island will implement a statewide program this week. It’s mandatory in Vermont, Washington, and Oregon. Most of California has voluntarily implemented a SMART program, and it’s been a commonplace practice throughout Europe for years, she said.
“It’s not a new concept, but just a hard-core change [for us],” Phillips said.
Meetings are scheduled in various locations, in the evening as well as during the day, with the hope that a large number of people will be able to attend. The schedule is:
- Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m., in the Town Hall Auditorium
- Wednesday, Jan.25, at 7 p.m., in the King Philip Middle School Auditorium
- Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m., at Elmwood Community Center
Representatives from Public Works, DEEP, WasteZero, and from other towns that have experience with SMART will be in attendance at the forums.
A likely question from residents will be how a change to a SMART program will impact taxes. “If we shift to this we will need less taxes to cover the town’s expenses,” Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said. The immediate savings “will impact the tax rate,” he said. However, Van Winkle added that there are many budget drivers other than waste management, and plenty of fiscal challenges given the uncertain amount of state funding the town may receive in the future.
Van Winkle doesn’t plan to incorporate SMART into the FY2018 budget he is working on right now, but he wants to show it in the budget documents as an option for the Town Council to consider.
“We need to begin with educating our community on the facts and trends,” Cantor said. “This will include an analysis of what has worked in other neighboring communities. Once we have the opportunity to educate we can have an informed discussion of our options and the best way forward for our town.”
Treating waste as a utility like gas, electricity, or water, will lead to better stewardship of it, Phillips said. “We separate everything else, but we drop all of our organization skills when it comes to the garbage,” he said.
“It’s an illness. This is like the medication. It’s going to be painful going down but after it’s done we’ll be much more healthy,” said Phillips.
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