The Cost of Recycling
A dramatic shift in the worldwide recycling market has forced the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation to crack down on “contaminated” loads arriving in Johnston. That has resulted in two dozen communities that used to dispose of their recyclables at no charge paying a total of more than $1.5 million since mid-2017. And, as Jim Hummel found, it has prompted many communities to give residents a refresher course on what should - and shouldn’t - go into the recycling bin every week.
Every day, 385 tons of used cans, bottles, plastic and paper products are processed here at the Materials Recycling Facility in Johnston, arriving from cities and towns across Rhode Island. Not that long ago Rhode Island Resource Recovery accepted all of it at no charge - and was able to turn around and sell it at home and abroad.
All of that changed dramatically two years ago when China said: enough. Mixed in with the recyclables coming from the United State was enough trash that China decided it didn’t want to be the world’s dump anymore.
And that forced Resource Recovery to enforce a longstanding policy that had been relaxed over the years: any load that has more than 10 percent of contaminated material is deemed trash, charged a $250 processing fee and winds up at the landfill next door at regular tipping fees.
A Hummel Report investigation found that two dozen communities in Rhode Island have paid a total of more than $1.5 million over the past two and a half years to dispose of recyclables that used to be accepted at no charge.
Earls: “When that truck gets to Johnston and they dump on the tipping room floor, that’s when they investigate whether or not the load is acceptable.”
Eric Earls in the Director of Public Works in Pawtucket, which is paying five times more than it did just two years ago for loads rejected in Johnston.
Earls: “When the load gets up to Johnston, it’s a person, it’s a very subjective determination of what a rejected load is. And so if that person has been instructed to be more strict on what is or is not acceptable then that gets reflected in the rejected load.“
Perrotta: “There is a shift in terms of how they’re being rejected versus before.”
Providence DPW Director Leo Perrotta said the city has made a concerted effort over the past several years to educate residents about what should - and shouldn’t - go into the recycling bin that hits the curb every week.
While the city was making progress, the amount it pays for rejected loads is up again this year.
In 2018, Providence paid $459,713 for contaminated loads. That increased to $475,941 last year. But the city is on pace for it to jump to $573, 898 by the end of the fiscal year in July.
This, despite inspectors periodically going ahead of crews, and the crews themselves scouring recycling bins and leaving trash behind so it does not contaminate a load. While some routes like this one had a driver and someone on the street checking each bin, most routes have just a driver with an automatic arm that lifts the bins up, over and into a truck.
The trucks in both Providence and Pawtucket are equipped with cameras, but that only helps so much.
Earls: “The cameras on the recycling trucks watch as it dumps, so if you pick up..if you have an automated truck and it picks up the recycling bin and dumps it, it’s going to see whether or not there’s contamination in that load, but by then it’s in the truck and it’s already too late. You’ve got a contaminated load and the city’s going to be on the hook for that when it gets to Johnston.”
The executive director of Resource Recovery declined an on camera interview, but he did tell The Hummel Report that the dramatic bottoming out of the worldwide recycling market has forced his agency to crack down on what arrives, and in turn what it can sell. In 2018 the agency budgeted making $10.6 million from recyclables; that number dipped to $8.6 million in 2019, and is up to $9.3 million this year.
Resource Recovery said cities and towns can station someone at the Materials Recycling Facility if they want to challenge whether a load is contaminated.
Earls: “Some municipalities will try and debate that. If we had a person up there watching our loads come in we could make the argument maybe only 50 percent of that load should be rejected. Even if we were doing that we would still be pay the $250 , you know, equipment charge to move the rejected material from the recycling pile to the trash pile.”
Hummel: “They took issue with my calling it a fine. Do you view it as a fine?”
Earls: “Six of these, half dozen of the another. It’s $250 we get hit with. They have the equipment up there, they call it an equipment charge, but that equipment is there either way, whether it slides it over to the recycling bin, or slides it over to the trash pile.”
Hummel: “It’s money out of your pocket.”
Earls: “Yeah and I get that they want to have some kind of incentive to motivate. If everything that goes up there is going to be trash either way, where is our motivation to clean up the recycling. So I kind of understand that.”
Lombardi: “We’re all in this together, and my concern is and goal is to do whatever we can to prolong the life expectancy of the landfill.”
North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi sits on the Board of Commissioners for Resource Recovery, which projects the landfill will be full by the year 2034. North Providence has seen the amount it pays for rejected loads increase more than 10 times in two and a half years.
Lombardi: “We’ve had a couple of contaminated loads. Do I like it? Absolutely not. Do I know why and do I understand? Absolutely. It’s all about public awareness, Jim. Get cooperation from our residents not only in North Providence, but all over the state, to recycle and to increase the diversion of recyclables out of the landfill.”
And the town has been working with those who have had their bins rejected curbside.
Lombardi: “We’ll take a picture. Of your home, maybe the apartment complex. And you’re saying to us, aw I recycle and we show you the picture. Is that recycling? Now we want to work with you. We don’t want to say okay we’re not going to pick up your trash because they you create a rodent problem.”
Back in Providence what goes on the street directly affects the city’s budget.
Perrotta: “You’re budgeting for recycling a certain rate and if you don’t meet that, that impacts your budget and that affects every taxpayer, which is why we want to encourage them to recycle property.”
Perrotta said with residents speaking dozens of languages, getting the message across has been a challenge. And sometimes a concentrated area of one area can wipe out the effort of others.
Perrotta: “You could have a whole route and it may be 10 households messing up the whole route. That’s it, that’s all it takes. And those 10 containers could be badly contaminated. It could have been a perfectly good load, would have cost the city absolutely nothing to put it as recyclable and instead it goes as trash; we get charged an extra $250 because it got rejected and you’re now paying the tipping fee at the landfill as garbage and potentially that impacts our cap. And if we got over the cap our fee goes even higher. So that affects everyone. Someone doing the wrong thing, 10 people doing the wrong thing on a route can mess up one truck.”
The unexpected increase in cost is forcing many municipalities to give residents a refresher course on what should - and shouldn’t - go into the recycling bin every week.
In Pawtucket, like many communities, crews will put a label on an unacceptable bin and offer a number for someone to call and find out why it was left in front of their house.
Earls: “So when they come out and see their recycling wasn’t picked up, there’ll be some understanding, so they can call or read the information.:
Hummel: “And then there’s an explanation when they call.”
Earls: “Then there’s an explanation and you hope that gets the point across.”
Perrotta says it’s a simple message in Providence:
Perrotta: “When it doubt, we say throw it out. Just put it in the trash. Do you basics: paper, plastic bottles, glass, cans. If you stick to the basics we’ll be successful.”
In Johnston, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.