Single-Stream Recycling Doesn't Mean Free-for-All

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

JOHNSTON — The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) is spending nearly $17 million to make recycling less of a chore and improve the state’s recycling rate, which has plateaued at about 25 percent.

Single-stream recycling (SSR) is scheduled to make its Ocean State appearance in late April and, according to those behind its implementation, there will be fewer rules, especially when it comes to recycling plastics.

But that doesn’t mean this one-bin system will be a free-for-all for plastics, glass, metals and paper. It’s not an all-in approach but there will be fewer restrictions and the process will be more logical, according to Sarah Kite, RIRRC’s director of recycling services.

For example, items that aren’t currently accepted, such as plastic iced coffee and Coolatta cups from that omnipresent chain and supermarket deli containers and plastic clamshells, will be accepted when the Central Landfill’s new sorting machines are up and running.

Decisions about the acceptability of larger plastics items, such as backyard playhouses, turtle pools, laundry baskets and 5-gallon buckets, still needs to be determined. The same goes for smaller items like a toothbrush or straw.

“We need to see what the new sorting machines can do,” Kite said. “It’s about what the machines can handle and not be destroyed by items.”

Items that currently aren’t accepted in either the blue or green bin, such as Styrofoam, food scraps and construction waste, also will be banned from SSR. Cables, wires and pipes will not be accepted. Also, wire clothes hangers that are currently allowed in the blue bin will not be collectable under SSR.

“There’s a market for Styrofoam, but it, has to be clean and dry, and that’s not going to happen being collected curbside in a bin,” Kite said.

Paper and cardboard also need to be clean, but not in the pristine condition Styrofoam recycling requires. In fact, the biggest argument against SSR is the quality of the fiber materials — newspapers, junk mail and cardboard — paper manufacturers are receiving from single-stream systems that also collect paper, plastic, glass and aluminum in the same bin.

Kite admitted that contamination of fiber materials was a problem, especially when SSR collection first started. But as single stream becomes the industry standard — Baltimore; Denver; Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Napa, Calif., are just a few of the cities that have incorporated SSR — and the technology behind this system improves, so too will the quality of the collected fiber materials, Kite said.

“The industry is changing to single-stream recycling,” she said. “Single-stream recycling will be the standard in five to ten years.”

By bringing SSR to Rhode Island, Kite said the RIRRC’s recycling at the Central Landfill will be able to handle 155,000 tons of materials annually — up from the 90,000 to 92,000 tons the facility is now equipped to handle. Kite said she expects more restaurants, commercial properties, apartment complexes and condominium associations to partake in SSR.

“Another 60,000 tons of material is out there,” she said. “The market for recyclables has expanded dramatically, especially in the past eighteen months.”

In fact, the General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that will allow the RIRRC to accept out-of-state recyclables, likely from southern Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut, in the event Rhode Island can’t produce the volume the facility can handle.

When the RIRRC’s single-stream system goes online in late April as scheduled, it will become the largest SSR facility in the area, according to Kite. Smaller facilities are in operation in Avon and Southbridge, Mass.