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Providence, We Have a Recycling Problem

How to step up our recycling efforts before it's too late.

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Providence, we need to talk. We have a recycling problem and we really need to discuss it. Actually, it might be more accurate to say we have a general waste management problem, but either way, we can’t keep pretending those big green cans are magic vessels that will make all our problems go away.

This conversation needs to include all of us. Yes, even you, Mr. or Mrs. I-recycle-everything-all-the-time, happily filling your green bin to the max with plastic hangers and grease-soaked pizza boxes and assuming that you’re doing your part. You, too, are part of the problem. Look, we all want to believe we’re doing our part to help steward our tiny corner of the planet, but the fact is that we can do better, need to do better. As the biggest city – and therefore, the biggest trash producer – in the state, our recycling efforts (or lack thereof), have real impacts on the environment, the ability of the entire state to manage its waste and even our taxes and city services. Consider this our intervention – and as always, the first step to solving our problem is admitting that we have one.

According to 2014 data from Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), Providence is sending almost a full ton (.99) of trash to the landfill for every household served by its waste haulers. The average for all other municipalities with 10,000 or more households served is .88. And it gets worse. Our MRF recycling rate, which measures the percentage of the total trash collection that’s being sent to RIRRC’s Materials Recycling Facility, is by far the lowest in the state at 9.5%, compared to an average of 22.9% for municipalities
serving 10,000 households or more and 23.8% statewide. Our mandatory recycling rate, which also takes into account yard waste and other materials that are recycled somewhere other than the green bin, is a paltry 13.9%, compared to 33.6% (municipalities ≥ 10,000) and 34.8% (statewide). The end result is that only 14.5% of our trash is being diverted from the landfill, while the statewide average is over 35%.

One of the major reasons for this problem is the fact that about two-thirds of the city’s dwellings are multi-family units. “It is more difficult to recycle in smaller apartments and denser neighborhoods,” notes Leah Bamberger, Providence’s Director of Sustainability.

“Storage can be a real problem in these areas.” This is compounded by the fact that Providence’s municipal waste disposal service will accommodate multi-families up to six units; most other municipalities cap it at four, beyond which the property owners are responsible for paying for their own waste management. With a constant flux of tenants in and out of these dwellings, and an estimated 25 languages being spoken in Providence on any given day, just keeping current residents informed about the Do’s and Don’ts is one of the city’s biggest recycling challenges.

“A city the size of Providence should be recycling at least 15,000 tons per year. Right now, the city successfully recycles less than 7,000 tons,” says Sarah Reeves, RIRRC’s Director of Public Policy, Programs and Planning. The key to that statement comes down to two little words: “successfully recycles.” The problem isn’t that we’re not throwing enough into those green bins, it’s that we’re throwing too much into them – or, more accurately, too much of the wrong stuff. According to RIRRC’s data, only about 40% of the city’s recycling is successful. “We’d like to see more focus on recycling right rather than on recycling rates,” Reeves notes. So what exactly does that mean?

What We Don’t Know About Recycling Could Fill a Truck
We tend to think of recycling as a form of waste disposal, just like our weekly trash pick-up, but that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. “Recycling is a manufacturing process. The recyclables become raw materials, and for them to have value there has to be a manufacturer on the other end,” Reeves clarifies. We all know that some things are recyclable and others are not, a difference most of us assume comes down to the material. There are actually three factors that determine an item’s recyclability (or lack thereof):

1) There must be someone on the other end willing to buy the material (i.e. the glass in your beer bottle or the cardboard in your pizza box). 

2) RIRRC must be able to collect the item efficiently. (For example, one of the reasons you can’t ship your plastic bags off with your recyclables is because they tend to wrap themselves around the sorting machines at the Materials Recycling Facility, causing shutdowns.) 

3) RIRRC must be able to collect the quantity and quality of material desired by the buyer. “If I don’t have a customer to buy bales of Bic pens, then Bic pens aren’t recyclable,” declares Reeves. “It’s truly that simple.”

Understanding these factors is key to increasing Providence’s recycling numbers. When we put something in the recycling bin that doesn’t belong there, it doesn’t magically get recycled anyway (Reeves calls this “wishcycling”) – it gets rerouted to the landfill, where it adds to the already monumental amount of trash we’re sending there. Furthermore, when we put really nasty things in the recycling bin – rotting food, yard waste, household chemicals – it contaminates the whole load, and otherwise good recyclables end up in the landfill. People put some crazy things into their recycling bins – syringes, diapers, tires, propane tanks, engine parts, even dead animals, to name a few – and it adds up: according to Bamberger, the city’s contaminated recycling loads in fiscal year 2015 totaled 17,000 tons. We’re not just adding up tonnage either, we’re also counting dollars.

Bad Recycling Means Throwing Money Away
“Our poor recycling rate costs the City a significant amount of money each year,” Bamberger explains. “For every rejected load, we are fined $250.” The rejected loads are a double whammy for the City’s budget, too: each municipality has a cap on how much waste it can send to the landfill in a given year. The City pays a $32 per ton tipping fee as long as it stays under the cap; it increases to $54 per ton beyond the cap. In FY2015, Providence exceeded its cap by over 14,000 tons. “If we can eliminate these rejected loads and send them to the recycling facility instead of the landfill, we could stay under our cap and save upwards of $775,000 per year,” says Bamberger. We’re also losing out on potential income, because the City gets back a percentage of the value of its successful recycling. Total all those losses and you’ll realize, as RIRRC’s Reeves notes, “that money is truly being thrown away.”

That cost has ripple effects. “We need to start paying more attention to our waste, and understanding how it’s managed and what this costs,” says Leo Pollock, founder of the Compost Plant, a commercial composting operation in Providence. “I don’t think most people understand that the more we recycle successfully, the more money the City saves for general services.”

These are just the immediate costs – over the long term, it could get much worse. The state landfill in Johnston is approaching the end of its useful life; at today’s rate of trash generation, it’s got another 22 years, at best. Once we run out of room there, it’s not like any other municipalities will line up to site a new one. What happens then? “Without a central landfill, cities and towns would be forced to export our trash, which could mean paying fees of close to $100 per ton,” notes Bamberger. That increased strain on the budget could lead to either higher taxes or cuts in services, or both.

Pollock sees a disconnect in our understanding of the economics at work. “Because we pay the cost of trash collection in taxes, it’s hidden, it’s invisible,” he says. “So there’s a little bit of this mentality of trash having no ‘real’ cost, which then disincentivizes recycling and composting.” He also calls the $32 per ton tipping fee “absurdly,
artificially low.”

Providence Can Do Better

Reeves, Bamberger and Pollock all agree that education is the key to solving Providence’s recycling problem. That’s easier said than done, but unless Providence residents are willing to host a new landfill or see their tax bills skyrocket, it’s imperative that we try.

Reeves believes that getting information directly in the hands of residents, not just property owners, is crucial to raising awareness in a city with so many multi-unit dwellings. “We’ve heard that many residents are simply unaware that there are [City] services like bulky goods pick-up, electronic waste collections or household hazardous waste events. Some don’t know why their trash carts are two different colors,” says Reeves. “When the City speaks with people one-on-one and discusses the programs, residents are quick to comply. Door-to-door community engagement is needed every day.”

Bamberger agrees, but cautions that it “is a continued challenge given limited resources and an extremely diverse and transient population.” Last fall, the City piloted its SustainPVD Ambassador program, which trains residents about proper recycling practices so that they can in turn educate their neighbors. An experiment with this program in Washington Park produced encouraging results.

The City is also trying the carrot where the stick hasn’t worked. There is a municipal enforcement effort that can result in fines for improper recycling, but those violations are often issued to landlords who are not actually the guilty parties. Last year, the City tried a new tactic: offering free admission to the Downtown skating rink to residents who filled out a recycling pledge card and sent it to the Office of Sustainability. “These are all pilot efforts to help us understand what works and what doesn’t,” explains Bamberger. “We are closely monitoring the impacts of these efforts so we can then scale strategies that are proven to be effective.”

Ultimately, the most effective way to solve this problem is for each of us to do our individual part. “I think every Rhode Island resident should take a tour of the landfill and the recycling facility,” Pollock enthuses. “When you see the recycling process, the volume moving through the facility, and understand how things that casually get thrown in recycling bins can screw up the entire system, it changes how you think.” While you may not be clearing your schedule to plan that visit, you can put a little more time into doing your civic duty. Learn the Do’s and Don’ts of proper recycling. Spend a few extra minutes on trash day ensuring that the right things are in the right bins. Watch some of the helpful videos at RecycleTogetherri.org.

Unfortunately, some people will never do their part to reduce our recycling problem, but Pollock has a solution for them, too: “I think residents with that attitude should be paying more for their waste collection.”