Poor Recycling Practices Cost Providence Taxpayers

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

JOHSNTON, R.I. — Providence’s new automated trash and recycling program isn’t going smoothly. Launched last October, the "Big Green Can" program replaced the curbside blue and green recycling bins with a large cart for recycling and a smaller cart for trash. The problem: too many residents are still using the larger 95-gallon bin for trash.

Instead of bottles, cans and paper, residents in some neighborhoods are tossing TVs, food scrap and construction debris into their recycling bins. More than half of the recycling trucks heading to the state recycling center from Providence's West and South sides are rejected because of a high mix of trash, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC).

This contaminated recycling — currently about 100 tons a week — has dampened Providence's efforts to increase its recycling rate. It's also costing the city money. Improperly discarded trash in recycling bins forced the city to exceed its annual waste cap for the first time in three years. Instead of paying $32 a ton for waste, the city is now paying $54. The higher tipping fee, plus the loss of revenue from the recycling sold through the RIRRC, will cost Providence about $100,000 this year, according to Sarah Kite, RIRRC's director of recycling services.

Kite blamed the problem on communication. Residents of both the West and South sides of Providence speak multiple languages — up to 40 in all, Kite estimated. Residents in these sections are also highly transient, and most homes aren't occupied by their owners.

During the June 26 meeting of the RIRRC board of commissioners, Kite said she urged Providence officials last September to embark on a door-to-door information campaign. Instead, the city launched several mail and ad campaigns, as well as issuing tickets to violators. The city's trash-in-recycling-bin problem persists.

“Unfortunately, what we feared did come to pass,” Kite said.

Kite asked the board, on behalf of the city, for $25,000 to fund a door-to-door campaign. Commissioner Lori Ann Pezzulo was reluctant to agree, noting that Providence was aware of the risk. Other cities and towns could also use the funds, she said. ”We don’t see why we have to help out the city of Providence," Pezzulo said.

Commissioner Geoffrey Kirkman countered, saying that the funds are earmarked for municipal waste and recycling projects, such as Providence's new waste-collection program. “This is what the grant account is for,” he said.

The RIRRC board eventually agreed to fund the project through the grant account, but required the city to repay half the cost from its recycling profit-sharing proceeds it receives in September.

The grant goes to the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island to conduct the door-to-door campaign, which is scheduled to begin in July and run for eight weeks.