Gas Stations, Coffee Shops Must Recycle; Most Don't

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

We've all seen trash bins at gas stations and coffee shops overflowing with plastic bottles and cups and thought, "Shouldn’t they recycle this stuff?”

The answer is yes.

Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut all require businesses to recycle their plastics, paper and glass, even items left by customers. This law, however, is rarely followed or enforced.

There is scant data on how much recyclable material gets thrown out in trash bins at businesses such as Dunkin' Donuts or Cumberland Farms, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) containers and packaging represent the single largest category of municipal waste, accounting for 30 percent to 40 percent of all trash.

Yet, despite laws in the three states, this highly visible service sector — retailers, restaurants, gas stations — seems to do little recycling of customer waste, also called front-of-the-store recycling.

Why? Sarah Kite, director of recycling services for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corportion, which manages the Central Landfill in Johnston, said the answer is simple: "businesses don’t want to bear the additional collection cost, and no one is enforcing the law."

State enforcement agencies and businesses both say they suffer from the same problem: insufficient staff. Rhode Island and Connecticut each have one employee dedicated to overseeing commercial recycling. This person spends most of his or her time on soft-touch outreach that focuses on “back-of-the-house” recycling, typically at bigger companies that produce larger quantities of cardboard and paper from manufacturing and shipping.

Business groups say it’s harder to address the front-of-the-house recycling at small retail and food operations that may have few employees and limited storage space. Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, said asking an employee to police recycling bins takes away from working the cash register or preparing food. Customers leave if they have to wait, he said.

“Suddenly, you have an inconvenience store,” Lenard said. He added that separating recycling can be messy, unsightly and shouldn’t be near food. “It’s challenging. It’s ‘green versus clean’ if you don’t have much space,” Lenard said.

While there have been advancements, such as automated machines for collecting recycling, communities tend to oppose larger convenience stores because they create more traffic, Lenard said.

But Lorenzo Macaluso, director of green business services for the Center for EcoTechnology (CET) in Northampton, said collecting recycling is as simple as changing the lid on a trash bin and better signage.

“There are all kinds of creative receptacles now with the same footprint, where you can capture trash and recycling effectively,” he said.

CET is funded by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to run RecyclingWorks Massachusetts, a program to help businesses recycle and compost. Back-of-the-store recycling gets most of the attention, Macaluso said, but collecting customer recycling at gas stations, coffee shops and restaurants can make a big dent in reducing the waste stream.

“Cumulatively, it’s probably has an enormous potential impact,” he said.

So far, RecyclingWorks has helped grocery stores and a handful of gas stations implement front-of-the-store recycling. (See a case study here.) It may not offer big savings, Macaluso said, but recycling is something customers and employees expect to see.

“Not recycling in the public areas creates a disconnect,” he said. “It feels weird at some point not to recycle.”

Business owners typically need education and assurance that the tools exist to make recycling work. “It’s not that complicated to implement," Macaluso said. "They just need to the guidance to get from A to B.”

Finding that decision-maker, however, can be complicated. On its website, Starbucks, which offers front-of-the-store recycling at 39 percent to its locations, explains the challenges of coordinating recycling with landlords and waste haulers, and managing waste in shared retail areas such as food courts and malls. 

“Commercial recycling services are often less robust than residential recycling, and sometimes may not be available — that means the items our customers are used to recycling at home may not be accepted at businesses like ours because the recyclers won’t take them,” according to the company's website.

Neither Starbucks nor McDonald's responded to inquiries about their recycling efforts in southern New England. Dunkin' Donuts, which seems to have few, if any, recycling bins for customers, has increased Styrofoam-cup collection at some locations. Recycling, however, falls to the franchise owners “who are responsible for setting their own policies for day-to-day operations. They are required to comply with all state, federal and local laws,” said D&D spokewoman Kate Barba.

In Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, businesses are prohibited from throwing out recyclable items, but enforcement varies.

Massachusetts conducts between 200 and 250 inspections annually, by monitoring trucks at recycling collection centers. In March, the DEP listed 101 violations of businesses and other organizations that threw out large amount of recyclable items between January 2013 and January 2014. Violaters included Market Basket, 1-800 Got Junk, the Boston Red Sox, Allied Waste, Waste Management, Lord & Taylor, Target, Verizon, BJ’s Wholesale Club, General Mills, Boston College, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Brandeis University, Marshalls and TJ Maxx.

Massachusetts also expects that efforts to expand its bottle deposit law on the November ballot will help compliance, even at on-the-go places.

Rhode Island focuses on municipal recycling at the state’s central recycling center in Johnston. Connecticut has one part-time inspector who responds to complaints, typically from tenants of buildings that lack recycling.

All three states offer free advice to businesses for making recycling easier. Suggestions include working with cities and towns on recycling collection or drop-off, alliances with business associations, and training employees. While Massachusetts has the most comprehensive programs and funding, Rhode Island and Connecticut are making due with shrinking budgets and resistance to business regulations.

“The (Massachusetts) CET program is great. I wish we had something like that in Connecticut, but we don't,” said Chris Nelson, supervising environmental analyst with the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP).

His department actively promotes educational campaigns aimed at municipalities and business groups. Nelson expects recycling to improve on all fronts as the state's new ban on food scrap takes hold. But there are limits.

“We’re understaffed. We can’t go out there and visit every Starbucks in the state, but we can go out and visit a few (organizations) that will implement policies statewide,” Nelson said.

But recycling is the law. “If you sell stuff you’ve got to offer a way of collecting it," he said.