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Stonington's solid waste director retiring after 34 years

·4 min read

Jul. 28—STONINGTON — In 1988, John Phetteplace was working in Town Hall as a planning intern when he applied for the assistant planner job.

He didn't get it.

But the next day, then First Selectman Nick Kepple hired him as the town's first recycling coordinator.

"But I knew nothing about the job," Phetteplace recalled Wednesday while talking in the basement conference room of Town Hall.

But he learned quickly. Over the next 34 years, Phetteplace became one of Connecticut's leaders in the solid waste field, implementing innovative programs in Stonington and helping other communities do the same. For the past two decades, he has been the chairman of the 12-town Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority, or SCRRRA, a regional trash cooperative.

On Monday, the 67-year-old Hadlyme resident, who is married and has two grown children, will retire with his assistant, Jill Senior, taking over.

"I'm ready. I want to do something else. I have a lot of things I want to do. I want to spend time doing some fun things," he said. "It will be nice to get up, put on the TV and drink some coffee instead of guzzling it down."

First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough praised Phetteplace on Wednesday as "just an amazing person."

"The work John has done for our community over the past three decades has been nothing short of remarkable. He is humble, thoughtful and innovative. His work on issues related to sustainable solid waste management have enabled our community to be a leader within the state," she said. "He will be missed, but the amazing team he leaves in place, both at the transfer station and Town Hall, will be able to continue his tradition of excellence. It has personally been a privilege to work alongside and learn from John over the years, and I know he will continue to inspire more great work in our community."

Phetteplace's initial job as recycling coordinator later expanded into the position of solid waste manager, which involved managing the operation and budget for the transfer station on Greenhaven Road.

In 1992, with the town landfill having closed and the town now having to bring its trash to the Preston incinerator, the town had to find the funding to pay that cost. Traditionally, that would have meant the town would increase the tax rate by several mills, as property owners funded trash disposal through the budget based on the assessment of their property.

But Phetteplace had attended a workshop where he learned about the so-called "pay as you throw" method of disposal, in which residents buy special yellow garbage bags to dispose of their trash. This allows residents to pay for only the trash they generate. The method dramatically reduces the trash a town generates because residents look to recycle more to save on the yellow bags, which currently cost 85 cents and $1.50 each depending on their size.

Stonington and East Lyme became the first two towns in the state to implement the bag program.

"We generate 50% less trash than a comparable-sized town because we recycle and compost," Phetteplace said of Stonington.

Under Phetteplace, Stonington is now contracted for stable trash disposal fees over the next eight years at a time when other communities face escalating costs.

During his tenure, Phetteplace implemented a program that allows residents to recycle textiles in free pink bags they place at the curb for pickup, and also allowed residents to place all recyclable items in one bin. He opened a reuse shed at the transfer station, where residents can take home used items that others drop off, and began recycling mattresses, electronics, cooking oil and other items. He also began a hazardous waste disposal day that is now held in nine area communities and which residents from each town can attend.

Phetteplace said he also has applied for a state grant that will help the town begin composting food waste, which makes up 30% of the town's waste stream. All this recycling means lower disposal costs for the town.

Phetteplace said he had the autonomy to develop and implement the programs he wanted and has been "very fortunate" to work with a group of friendly, talented and hardworking employees.,

"It's been a great job," he said.