Providence, RI looks to solve rampant contamination in struggling recycling program

Dive Brief:

  • Public works officials in Providence, RI are looking for new solutions to improve residential diversion rates after they dipped below 9% between November and January. During that same period the rates in some neighborhoods were below 1%, particularly in areas with high concentrations of multi-unit buildings, as reported by WPRI.
  • The main issue is contamination. During 2015, an estimated 17,000 tons of waste was diverted for recycling. Yet more than 12,000 tons of that material was rejected by inspectors from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC). Any load with more than 10% contamination is rejected with an accompanying fine of $250.
  • Offering new educational resources in different languages and increasing enforcement through warnings and tickets has led to some improvements. Providence's collection contract with Waste Management also ends this year, providing a new opportunity to reassess the current recycling situation before moving forward.

Dive Insight:

Providence's public works director has said he would be happy to see a 15% diversion rate in the near future. While this would still be below the state goal of 35% - which hasn't been achieved yet - it would begin to stabilize a struggling program. The city is currently open to a renewal with Waste Management, contracting with another company or potentially collecting the waste itself. Reducing contamination will be a priority in any scenario.

Like many municipalities with this problem, Providence has a single-stream recycling system. Though popular for its potential to increase capture rates, single-stream can also lead to costly contamination issues. Organizations and municipalities around the country are currently working on a range of solutions to turn this around. So far targeted messaging and personalized educational methods have been particularly successful.

Rhode Island has been at the forefront of multiple recent recycling shifts — such as food waste diversion and standardized recycling terminology — but new ideas may be needed to boost performance in its largest city. As new Recycle Across America signage becomes more prevalent in schools and public spaces throughout Providence, that could also help raise awareness among residents that not everything belongs in their blue bins.

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Filed Under: Recycling Waste Diversion