Recyclables From Restaurants Flows Into Landfill

By DAVID FISHER/ecoRI News staff

In November, the city of Providence implemented a new municipal waste collection policy intended to increase the percentage of recyclable material sorted and separated by residents.

A month later, there were homes in Providence with weeks’ worth of garbage on the sidewalk in front of them. These residents either did not produce any recyclable waste, or, more likely, did not separate and sort the recyclables into the proper color-coded bins, provided by the city.

Aside from people who personally recycle for profit, every household in Rhode Island should have recyclable material put out for weekly curbside pickup. “No bin, no barrel” has become policy for residents of Providence and some other Rhode Island cities and towns, but what about businesses in our state? Are they held to these same requirements?

The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) mandates that small businesses recycle, but, unlike businesses with 50 or more employees, they are not required to report on the management of their waste. These larger businesses must submit an annual recycling report and information about their waste streams to the DEM by March 1.

Most privately owned restaurants in Rhode Island, for example, fall into the small-business category.

This smacks as a serious lack of accountability, but the DEM has a plan. It has designed a “penalty matrix” and, although the state is now urging voluntary compliance with mandatory recycling ordinances, soon businesses, small and large, will face stiff and progressive penalties for not properly handling their recyclable waste.

Many small-business owners balk at the idea of having to pay a waste hauler to pick up recyclables, so most of them don’t contract to have their recyclables properly disposed. Those small businesses that do recycle, usually give their plastic, glass and metal to an individual who recycles for personal profit — some even bring their recyclables home to their own residential recycling bins.

According to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which operates the state landfill in Johnston, if businesses contract for refuse only, then they are free to contract with anyone for recyclables collection. There is nothing in the law that prohibits a business from utilizing local recycling collection as long as it is agreeable to the municipality. Each city and town determines its refuse and recycling program parameters, meaning the decision on which entities within a community to include in the municipal refuse and recycling collection is made by city or town officials.

Some communities are catching on. The town of Warren collects recyclables from all the businesses on Main Street. According to Kristin Littlefield, director of Newport’s Clean City Program, 30 Newport businesses have inquired about a municipal commercial recycling program, and although such a program has not been instituted, it is in the works.

The DEM’s 2007 report on commercial recycling percentages determined that 95 percent of restaurants in the state recycle 13 percent of their solid waste. However, Sarah Kite, Resource Recovery Corporation’s director of recycling services, said, “… the 13 percent may be accurate, because if any recycling is being done, it’s on the cardboard side, and cardboard may very well be 13 percent of a restaurant’s waste. Very little bottle and can recycling is happening in the business community.”

Keep in mind that these numbers are only for restaurants with more than 50 employees. Think of how many beer, wine and soda bottles/cans and milk containers are thrown away daily in small restaurants and bars that employ less than 50 people. Small restaurants are the overwhelming majority in the state. The amount of waste glass and plastic that is produced in the hospitality trade is staggering.

As with most people, businesses are highly resistant to change, and also resistant to spending money today that they didn’t have to spend yesterday. The sad truth is, most will not spend that money until forced to do so. Residents, landlords and businesses that do not recycle, probably will not until they are faced with a fine for not doing so.

The bottom line is, we all need to do our part, residents and commercial interests alike, so the next time you visit your favorite local eatery, ask if they recycle. If they say no, direct them to the Resource Recovery Corporation. It offers free consultations on waste management to all Rhode Island businesses.