Radical Plan Proposed for R.I. Recycling

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly is considering radical changes to Rhode Island's recycling program and is getting support from unexpected places.

A House bill (pdf) targeting marine debris has morphed into a fundamental overhaul of state trash and recycling. At its core are producer-responsibility organizations (PROs). These industry-funded groups guide municipal or private collection of recyclable material and packaging, such as paper, plastic bottles and Styrofoam. Manufacturers also are assessed fees based on the recyclability of a product. Revenue from the sale of certain commodities such as metal and plastic fund the program.

Industry groups typically oppose these producer-responsibility models, or EPRs, because of perceived cost increases. But Nestle Waters, the third-largest beverage company in the country and owner of Poland Springs, embraces the concept.

“This is a huge step forward,” Michael Washburn, vice president of sustainability for Nestle, said at an April 4 hearing of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

EPR programs are already running in Europe and parts of Canada, but the concept has yet to take hold on a large scale in the United States. Rhode Island employs EPR for specific products such as mercury thermometers and paint cans. The new system would broaden the concept to manage all packaging and recycables.

But businesses largely see EPR as unneeded bureaucracy with onerous fees. Washburn said a PRO system is an opportunity to improve an inefficient system and tap into a larger source of often-scarce commodities. The program would pay for expanded education, and additional bins in public spaces and at businesses such as gas stations and office buildings. Washburn called it “industry-lead recycling.”

A state oversight commission would set the regulations, but the PROs, run collaboratively by private companies, would enforce the rules.

“Rhode Island has a chance to lead the nation on this issue,” Washburn said.

Participation by cities and towns is optional, but the benefits include lower costs for municipalities, less trash in the landfill and less litter. Recycling goals would be set much higher, up to 75 percent for some products, and overall much higher than the unofficial current statewide target of 35 percent.

“This is a big concept, but it’s the right idea,” said Jamie Rhodes, director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island. Rhodes helped write the bill. He stressed that participation is voluntary. Small business are exempt, but overall EPR creates more jobs. “Recycling is all about commodities,” he said.

Opponents include the National Solid Waste Management Association and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

The bill is expected to undergo additional revision before future hearings.