DesChamps: ‘Pay As You Throw’ at Holly Hill Will Bring A Sustainable Future

Submitted by Julie DesChamps, Founder, Waste Free Greenwich

Town leadership has a critical decision to make regarding our waste management practices that will have serious fiscal, environmental and social repercussions. First Selectman Camillo proposed two solutions – Pay As You Throw (PAYT) and tipping fees, but only PAYT will curb trash output significantly, and take the cost out of our tax base, including covering the budget shortfall of $912k due to new recycling costs. Under PAYT, everyone – residents, businesses and tax-exempt entities – is incentivized to reduce waste because they pay only for what is tossed in the trash, like a utility. On the other hand, a tipping fee paid by haulers will do nothing to encourage waste reduction, and trash will continue to be generated at the current rate. 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, over 36k tons of trash was trucked from Greenwich to waste-to-energy plants in Peekskill, NY and Bridgeport to be incinerated at a cost to taxpayers of $4 million. Burning trash for energy is not efficient 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 they disproportionately impact vulnerable communities like Peekskill and Bridgeport. Further, incinerators are aging, 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 opportunities for waste diversion 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 in years. A recent audit of trash on the tipping floor of Holly Hill revealed significant quantities of recyclables mixed in with trash. Similarly, recyclables are contaminated with unacceptable items, as a glance into the containers at Holly Hill or a restaurant recycling receptacle reveal. Our community can and must do better.

According to a 2015 CT DEEP waste characterization study, food comprised a little over 22% of the municipal waste stream in Connecticut, up from 13% in 2010. Over 40% of recoverable materials in residential trash are compostable organics, and this figure skyrockets to 68% for restaurants and 51% for grocery stores. PAYT would incentivize people to access options to divert this waste and help meet the state goal of 60% waste reduction by 2024.

We need to think about our food and how much goes to waste, as it is a critical component of our trash. PAYT shines a light on this and will guide us to reduce food waste at its source, direct otherwise good food to feed the hungry and lastly, compost what is left. Source reduction means cutting the volume of wasted food generated from the start through smarter planning, cooking and storage. Next, let’s support the food insecure, while reducing waste. Organizations, like Food Rescue US, engage local donors to donate surplus food, providing meals for hungry neighbors via receiving agencies, like Boys and Girls Club, Neighbor to Neighbor, Community Centers and Kids in Crisis. To date, over 28 million pounds of food rescued at a value of $45 million in Fairfield County to date.

However, there are currently only seven donors – two grocery stores and five restaurants – partnering with Food Rescue US in Greenwich, and the organization is looking to expand its reach, encouraging local schools, country clubs, hospitals and more food establishments and grocers to participate. PAYT will spur these entities to cut their high rates of food waste through donation.

Finally, when source reduction and diversion are complete, composting should be used. Backyard composting of plant-based food scraps is an easy option. Residents and businesses can also hire Curbside Composting or Action Containers to pick up collected food scraps. Alternatively, a voluntary, drop-off food scrap recycling pilot will launch in Greenwich next month. This is an initiative organized by DPW, Conservation Commission, Greenwich Recycling Advisory Board and Waste Free Greenwich. The pilot will make a dent in our waste stream, but it is not the panacea that some have claimed. For example, Scarsdale has run both drop-off and curbside programs for food scrap
recycling since 2017. With 20% of households participating, this municipality just passed the million ton mark. In contrast, San Francisco and South Korea have mandated food scrap recycling, as well as PAYT, and reached 80% and 95% organics diversion rates respectively. While compulsory food scrap recycling may not be in our future, instituting PAYT in Greenwich will encourage more residents to reduce their output and otherwise pay their fair share to dispose of it.

Large-scale producers, including supermarkets, hotels, caterers, hospitals, country clubs and restaurants, are currently exempt from state regulations requiring recycling of their organic materials. Some grocers, like Whole Foods and Kings, voluntarily partner with Food Rescue US and/or send separated organics to a permitted composting facility, 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 large volume of food 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 – independent and public schools, town facilities, hospitals and houses of worship – that currently get a free ride for wasteful practices at taxpayers’ expense. While the majority of independent schools already collect and recycle food scraps through Curbside Compost, Greenwich Public Schools lag woefully behind in their efforts due to contractual challenges and a lack of support from senior administration. Lunchroom waste audits proved that an annual 18% diversion rate – or 31 tons of compostable produce – is achievable, if an effective composting system is implemented in all district
lunchrooms. As the largest institution in town, our public schools must make reduction of organic waste a priority by implementing composting, food sharing, donation and source reduction in their kitchens and cafeterias. Beyond our schools, all local tax-exempt entities must commit to stronger recovery efforts to reduce food waste. Currently, most unused food from country club banquets, church gatherings and hospital meals ends up in dumpsters, when a large percentage should be diverted to donations and composting. PAYT is fair, rewarding those who are more responsible and need fewer bags, while collecting more bag fees from those who are not.

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 from the waste stream using recovery strategies. It is time to rethink our waste system for a more sustainable future, one that is possible with PAYT.