Garbage In; Garbage Out. Providence is Missing the Mark on Recycling–By a Long Shot

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Rejected load of recyclables photo courtesy of the City of East Providence

Trash in Providence is disposed of in one of three ways: it is recycled, it is diverted, or it goes to the Johnston landfill.  Providence recycles only 7.8% of its garbage, the worst recycling rate of all municipalities in Rhode Island.  (Second to last is Pawtucket, but they are at least in the double digits at 20.3%.)  Providence is also last in terms of waste diversion.  Altogether, the city diverts only 8.3% of its solid waste.  Last year, Providence residents disposed of 80,279 tons of waste. Of that, only 6,633 tons were diverted, including mixed recycling, compost, scrap metal, clothing, etc.  Why does Providence perform so poorly, who’s to blame, and what can be done?

Rhode Island has only one landfill, and at the current rate of trash disposal, it is scheduled to shut down in 2046, leaving the state with no viable trash disposal alternatives.  In order to preserve the life of the landfill, the RI General Assembly passed Rhode Island General Law 23-18.9-1, which says that beginning July 1, 2012, every city or town that enters into a contract with the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation to dispose of solid waste is required to recycle at least 35% of its solid waste and divert a minimum of 50% of its solid waste.

The Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation  (RIRRC) is responsible for collecting and sorting recyclable materials, and is just one of the parties that determines what is recycled or landfilled. Resource Recovery staff review each load that is delivered to the MRF tipping floor by performing visual inspections, rejecting loads that are more than 10% contaminated with non-recyclable materials (plastic, food, foam containers, electronic waste, film, etc), per their Materials Acceptance Criteria.  It’s important that recyclable loads are clean in order that they can be sold and recycled.  All loads of recyclables are free to dump at the MRF.

MRF tipping floor, where recycling loads are inspected and may be rejected by MRF employees    photo courtesy of the RI Resource Recovery Center

Over $15 Million to Deal With Providence’s Garbage

The City of Providence contracts Rhode Island Waste Management (RIWM) to collect solid waste and recycling and deliver it to the RIRRC, and in 2023, agreed to pay the company $8,672,775 to do so. The City has maintained its contract with RIWM since 2018, approving yearly amendments with the total cost rising each year. An extension was just approved through June 2025; the cost to the City for refuse, recycling, and yard waste collection, increasing to $9,542,385.

The fees for managing our waste don’t stop there. In order to encourage waste recycling and diversion, RIRRC establishes an annual waste cap for each municipality in the state, based on its population.  Providence’s 2023 solid waste cap was 62,496 tons (and will not change in 2024). Under the cap, the City pays $58.50 per ton to dispose of its waste. Once the City reaches its cap, the disposal rate increases to $115. In 2023, Providence surpassed the cap by 11,151 tons. Then, there’s the $250 fee for each contaminated recycling load that’s rejected at the MRF, which then goes to the landfill and adds to the City’s total waste tally.  All in, that’s around $4,938,381 in disposal fees, plus the $9,542,385 yearly service fee to Waste Management. That’s quite an investment in waste and recycling services to so badly miss the mark on the State’s recycling requirements.  If the city were to comply with the state’s mandate and divert more waste from the landfill, it could, presumably, stay within its municipal cap.

Jared Rhodes, Director of Policy and Programs at the RIRRC explained that there are MRF rejected loads and route-rejected loads.  79 loads were rejected by RIRRC staff last year, while 2,626 recycling loads never even made it to the MRF in 2023 as Waste Management workers determined that they were more than 10% contaminated, and they went straight to the landfill.  In fact, Monday’s recyclables (East Side) are the only ones which go to the MRF; the routes from all other days and parts of the city are determined to be too contaminated to even bother and risk rejection and fines.

So how is RIWM inspecting and classifying the recycling? Josh Estrella, the City’s Press Secretary, described the recycling rejection process in a recent email. Automatic side loading (ASL) trucks are equipped with a robotic arm and have onboard cameras that alert the driver of contamination deposited into the truck during the dumping process. If the RIWM driver determines that contamination is high, they dispose of its trash to ensure the truckload meets MRF guidelines. The same applies to rear loaders which can sort recyclables at the curb . Multiple attempts to contact Rhode Island Waste Management about their training and recycling rejection process were unanswered.

There seems to be general frustration with Waste Management in Providence. People consistently submit complaints about garbage and recycling collection. Whether these complaints are about the misclassification of recycling or late pick-ups, we can’t be sure, since the volume is so high. Between 2020 and 2023, 4,961 concerns were made via the 311 hotline about trash or recycling pick up, and about 16,835 emails were sent to the City with similar issues, and 11,000 specifically mentioning Waste Management. In 2021, even City Councilmembers expressed their concern with Waste Management’s service, and issued Resolution 31908, which called for the City to start imposing “all penalties and provisions of the City’s contract with Waste Management,” due to the Company’s failure to consistently collect trash at the agreed-upon intervals throughout the pandemic. But, despite concerns with the quality of Providence’s waste management services, little has been done to address the inefficiencies of the service, other than the $4,000 in total fines levied since 2015.

How are Residents Supposed to Learn What Goes Where?

The 2023 Municipal Matrix speaks to the City’s enforcement measures to improve recycling rates and compliance of its residents, showing 2,949 tickets issued in 2023, totaling $512,075 in fines. These fines were levied for improper storage, late removal, contaminated recycling, and overflow. City inspectors will, at times, conduct canvassing and aim to remind residents of recycling guidelines to improve compliance rates and increase the acceptance of recycling loads over the long term, according to Estrella. Other efforts included distributing recycling literature to residents within a targeted route on the East Side where, for a time, there had been consistent load rejections. Mayor Smiley’s proposed budget for 2025 allocates $9,542,385 for trash and recycling pick up, $4,510,000 for refuse processing, and $50,000 for recycling education.

Providence’s mandatory recycling guidelines, City of Providence, Office of Sustainability

Estrella elaborated that these recycling education efforts include “supporting and expanding the Department of Public Works’ ongoing education initiatives. These initiatives include distributing informative materials, such as flyers and packets containing recycling guidelines and tips, at various community meetings, special events and weekly mattress collection events held at the Department of Public Works and distributed during targeted canvassing efforts.”  In reality, however, where there is great language diversity and new residents moving into the city regularly, there is little effective public information about the recycling rules.  Many people, for example, thinking that they are doing the right thing, put their recyclables in plastic bags, immediately contaminating the recyclables load.

Mayor Smiley said in his recent 2025 budget address that “improving quality of life through the City is about more than just enforcing our laws. From plowing roads to picking up trash to fixing sidewalks, we are building a City Hall that is both proactive and responsive, addressing issues before they arise and also ensuring efficient and effective delivery of services, when requested.”

Not only is a 7.8% mandatory recycling rate a stain on our city’s reputation from an environmental sustainability perspective, but it calls into question how effective the city’s initiatives can be in enacting change.

There is some hope. The Environmental Protection Agency recently granted $3,348,166 to the City of Providence to help boost food waste diversion, by providing technical assistance to support best practices for diversion.  It also aims to expand its municipal recycling collection with a pilot program for businesses, and providing new curbside totes for neighborhoods with high recycling contamination. The grant agreement explains that the city will sub-contract with Remix Organics, Groundwork RI, and the Center for Eco Technologies to implement the grant activities, and is expected to continue through 2027.

In conjunction with City efforts, residents can also do their part to improve recycling rates. Households can adhere to the recycling guidelines put forth by the Resource Recovery Center. They can call 311, or notify the Office of Sustainability with questions or concerns. And, since 33% of residential trash is food scraps, they can divert that by participating in the city’s network of food waste diversion programs.

Aerial view of the Johnston landfill/ RIRRC (courtesy of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Center)

Despite these opportunities to change City-wide recycling habits, the fact remains that the Johnston landfill is reaching capacity, and there is no clear path forward once the land is completely filled. RIRRC’s most recent budget estimates that the landfill could reach capacity by 2046, and if the City continues to increase its solid waste disposal each year, the landfill could reach capacity sooner than that. RIRRC’s main recommendation as we near capacity is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. But with minimal education about residential waste recycling and diversion, no consistent enforcement measures that encourage the public to reduce waste, and a lack of policing of RIWM that picks up our trash, we’re likely to remain in last place indefinitely.

Emily Smith moved to Providence in 2022 and wanted to contribute to the Providence Eye to learn more about her new community. Emily works in international development, facilitating grants to all parts of the world. She lives in Federal Hill.