Less than Half of Collected R.I. Glass Gets Recycled

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

JOHNSTON, R.I. — Recycling is up at the Central Landfill. According to Michael OConnell, executive director of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), the volume of recyclables heading to the materials recycling facility (MRF) has increased 25 percent since the summer. The surge is attributed to a jump in volume from cities and towns, combined with more recyclables from commercial haulers, several from out of state.

By law, all municipalities in Rhode Island must bring their residential recycling to the MRF. They also get a check each year from RIRRC from a portion of the sale of recyclable items such as metal, paper and plastic.

“It’s all good news because cities and towns participate in the revenue sharing,” OConnell told RIRRC’s board of commissioners recently.

Thanks to a recent law change, commercial waste haulers can also bring their recyclables to the MRF. Commercial haulers aren't charged to deliver recyclables to the MRF. They don't receive revenue from the sale of the material. For this reason, larger wastes haulers such as Waste Management usually collect and sell their recycling directly to the market.

Fluctuating prices of recyclables led to smaller profit sharing checks this year, while one cost has increased: shipping glass to a processor.

Less than half of the residential glass collected in Rhode Island is shipped out for reuse or recycling. The rest is mixed with materials that cover the landfill daily. Due to limited capacity, Strategic Materials Inc. in Franklin, Mass., only accepts glass from Rhode Island when it has room. The facility doesn't recycle glass; it cleans the glass, sorts it by color and grounds it into pellets, or cullet. Depending on the quality, the cullet is sold to bottle manufactures.

While municipal recycling is rising, up 11 percent from last year, commercial volume has increased in recent months because of excess material from commercial haulers. Commercial haulers from southeast Massachusetts, as well as from Avon and Springfield, Mass., are trucking their overflow to the Central Landfill.

“They always know there is availability here,” said Sarah Kite, RIRRC’s director of recycling services.

Volume, she said, is typically between 100,000 and 110,000 tons a year. Maximum capacity is 155,000 tons per year.

20-year plan
RIRRC held several public workshops this fall for updating its solid-waste plan. A report is expected to be completed by the end of 2014. An updated plan is needed because alternatives for waste disposal are needed as the Central Landfill is expected to run out of space by 2038. Two to three years remain on the current Phase 5 dumping sight. Phase 6 has up to 25 years of space.

To extend the life of the landfill, a global positioning system (GPS) delivers data to RIRRC to find pockets in the active face of the landfill for burying additional waste.

Paper and packaging account for 15 percent of the buried waste. Durable goods, such as washing machines, account for 2 percent.

The state’s low cost of tipping waste at the landfill — about $43 a ton — makes it hard to create incentives to increase recycling and composting, OConnell said. “We have to recognize the era of low tipping fees is coming to an end. It has to," he said.

Since 1992, the municipal tipping fee has been $32 a ton. The commercial tipping fee averages $50 per ton, unchanged since 1992. The General Assembly sets the municipal rate. RIRRC sets the commercial rate.

The solid-waste plan seeks ways to reduce waste, increase funding, and find options for trash disposal once the landfill is full.

Funding for new projects is particularly challenging because less waste going to the landfill reduces revenue.

Zero waste isn’t likely, OConnell said, and incinerators — or waste-to-energy facilities — as a means of disposal isn’t yet viable due to pollution and cost. “But the technology is changing. At some point, something is going to come along that works right," he said.

Currently, RIRRC isn't permitted to build an incinerator. “I think it’s our job to put the option out there,” OConnell said.

Kite said Massachusetts and Connecticut have the highest concentration of waste incinerators in the country. Municipal incinerators are also common in Europe. But RIRRC isn’t about to push for building one, she said. But she’s getting questions from the public at recent public forums about waste in Rhode Island. “People are asking us, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” she said.