Local Youth Movement Uses Social Media to Shame Trashy Businesses

The Ocean Notion uses advocacy and activism to get businesses to comply with recycling laws. This Dumpster sits behind a Valero gas station in Smithfield, R.I. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

The Ocean Notion uses advocacy and activism to get businesses to comply with recycling laws. This Dumpster sits behind a Valero gas station in Smithfield, R.I. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

A new advocacy group is trying an innovative solution to address an age-old problem: trash.

The Ocean Notion was formed by three University of Rhode Island students in February 2015 to focus mainly on beach cleanups.

“What really makes us different is that we are reaching out to a younger generation not reached by other groups,” said Peter Mitchell, 21, one of the co-founders who runs the organization from Block Island.

The initial aim was to start in Rhode Island and grow nationally by drawing attention to shoreline waste issues through social media. “A lot of people in our generation are really not aware of what’s going on and no one is reaching out to them,” Mitchell said.

But the mission took a turn this year, when Mitchell, Martin Naro and Tristen Rodgers saw that the three Dunkin’ Donuts on URI's Kingston campus weren’t offering recycling to customers, nor were they recycling their boxes and other back-of-the store items.

They questioned Dunkin’ Donuts employees, managers and eventually regional managers about the problem. They got back some of the standard excuses: the onerous cost of recycling; the responsibility for recycling belongs to the property owner, not the store owner.

The three did a little digging, including reading an ecoRI News article, and learned that Rhode Island law requires all businesses, including fast-food restaurants and gas stations, to offer recycling for their in-store customers. The law also mandates that businesses recycle their back-of-the-house recyclables such as cardboard boxes and plastic jugs.

A Dunkin’ Donuts district manager wasn’t aware of the recycling laws when The Ocean Notion presented them. But after D&D turned down the students' offer to help separate the three stores' trash and give them each a recycling bin, The Ocean Notion filed a complaint with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The state agency is currently investigating the matter. The company faces a fine up to $1,000.

“If they are not willing to help, we are not just going to stand by, we are going to report them,” Mitchell said.

The national chain has said that recycling is the responsibility of the franchise owner, not the corporate parent. On its website the company outlines efforts to use more recyclable and compostable products. Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company, didn't respond to a request for an interview.

The Ocean Notion founders during a recent beach cleanup. (The Ocean Notion)

The Ocean Notion founders during a recent beach cleanup. (The Ocean Notion)

The Ocean Notion has found that there is scant monitoring and enforcement of recycling laws by DEM, mostly because of staff shortages. The students also discovered that the state agency only investigates violations by retailers if someone complains.

Waste diversion, however, is a significant problem. A study conducted by Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation found that recyclable items account for 19 percent of trash. Another 16 percent is compostable.

The experience prompted The Ocean Notion to add a carrot-and-stick approach to its mission. When they find a business that fails to recycle, the group first offers to serve as a consultant and help implement responsible waste management. If that fails, the group reports the infraction to an enforcement entity such as DEM. It subsequently posts the unlawful business on social media, in hopes that the negative attention will spur action. This practice encourages its like-minded followers to do the same.

“A shame campaign can be effective, but we’d rather have (businesses) work together with us,” Rodgers said.

The Ocean Notion will continue with beach cleanups, but it will also attack waste from the source. Businesses, the founders say, can be an agent of change. They are launching a model that treats trash much like carbon emissions. By offering trash credits, companies can purchase allowances for waste. The money from those credits would then fund waste-reduction programs and community education.

The organization's efforts won’t be exclusively checking on Dunkin’ Donuts but inspect all fast-food restaurants and other possible violators that consumers encounter frequently.

“We wanted to do something to give back,” Mitchell said. “We love the ocean. As much as we go and clean the beaches, we realized we really weren’t making a difference.”