New Mindset for R.I.'s New Recycling Machine

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

JOHNSTON, R.I. — The ribbon has been cut and the advertising campaign touting the state's new single-bin recycling program "Recycle Together RI" is in full swing. The message: Combine plastic, paper and cans in one bin and more stuff will get recycled.

Increased plastics collection, in particular, also will bring in more money to the operators of the landfill, and in theory added revenue for all Rhode Island cities and towns, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovering Corporation, which operates the Central Landfill.

At the June 6 ribbon cutting, Gov. Lincoln Chafee called the $16.9 million project a win for the environment and the Rhode Island economy. "Every ton that can be recycled and brought to the landfill, that's more money for the cities and towns," he said.

Here are some interesting facts about this new system:

Glass. Most glass hasn't been recycled for at least the past 20 years and it still won't be under this new single-stream system. Glass is separated from the recyclables and crushed at the landfill's materials recycling facility, and then simply buried with trash in the landfill. The closest glass recycler is in Franklin, Mass. Rhode Island Resource Recovery (RIRRC) officials say it's too expensive to sort glass by color, remove all paper and ship it.

"It's not even close to a break-even," said Sarah Kite, RIRRC's director of recycling services.

Flint and amber glass were separated and sent to market through June 2003, and in 2002 RIRRC shipped 2,000 tons of that glass to market for revenues of $35,000, according to Kite.


About 20 people are needed to operate the new recycling system. Instead of sorting the material, they mostly perform quality control. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)However, demand for glass has shrunk dramatically in recent decades, as just about everything, except for beer and some soda bottles, is packaged in plastic.

So why even collect glass with the other recyclables? RIRRC says its vigilant about solving the problem. Ideally, a glass recycler would set up shop at the landfill. So best to keep the glass with the recycling for now, rather than confusing the public by switching back and forth between putting glass with recycling or trash.

"We'd rather solve it and have it here," said RIRRC executive director Michael OConnell. "We want to solve the issue."

Source separation. The trend with recycling and waste management is to get people to think less about how and what they recycle and instead let the machines do all the work. Thus, the co-mingled, all-in-one-bin approach is replacing what's known as "source separation," which relies on the public to separate waste and recycling at the curb or at kiosks.

Pieter Van Dyk, president of the company that assembled the new Netherlands-made sorting machine at the Central Landfill, said source separation, which is common in Europe, is on the way out. "It's proven it's not the way to go," he said.

The new machinery with its optical scanners, vacuums, magnets and bailers is the most advanced system in the country, he said. So far, there are 12 others in the United States. They new system handles 50 tons of recyclables an hour. It's expected to recover an additional 50,000 tons of recyclables in Rhode Island. A new system is on order for all five boroughs of New York City that will process 1,000 tons daily.

Business sector. Businesses and apartment buildings are mandated by the state to offer recycling. There's no enforcement, so compliance is voluntary. Typically, they have to pay someone to take it away. Newport and Warren currently offer recycling service for businesses.

Overseas. Recycle America, a subsidiary of Waste Management, sells the bales of plastic, paper and metal for RIRRC. Currently, most paper and Nos. 3-7 plastics sell for about $90 a ton and are shipped overseas, creating a massive carbon footprint. Aluminum is the most valuable, selling for about $1,600 a ton. PET plastics (No. 1) and HDPE (No. 2) plastic sells for about $400 a ton.