Most Providence neighborhoods aren’t recycling properly

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When garbage is collected across Providence’s East Side Monday morning, approximately 36% of it will be recycled, a rate that compares favorably to nearly every community in Rhode Island.

But as trash is picked up in other parts of the city throughout the week, the recycling rate will plummet, falling under 1% in some of the Providence’s poorest neighborhoods, an Eyewitness News review of waste collection data shows.

Now, with landfill tipping fees on the rise and Providence preparing an RFP for a trash and recycling services contract, city officials are working to educate residents on how to recycle properly and considering hiring more environmental inspectors to crack down on the chronic contaminators responsible for causing the city’s overall recycling rate to fall below 9% between November and January.

“Recycling is our number one challenge,” Michael Borg, the city’s public works director, told the City Council Public Works Committee last week.

Borg, who spent his career working in the Army and at the Naval War College before taking over the Providence Emergency Management Agency in 2015 and becoming the city’s DPW director last year, told the committee the city has an excellent track record when it comes to trash collection, but the recycling problem is “costing the city a great deal of money.”

Providence spends about $9.2 million annually on trash collection and disposal services, managing more than 68,000 tons of municipal solid waste each year. But of the 17,000 tons of garbage city residents attempted to recycle in 2015, nearly 12,000 tons were rejected by the municipal recycling facility, according to a presentation prepared by the city. All told, the city was fined $250 for each of the 257 loads of recyclables that were deemed contaminated by inspectors at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC).

Between November and January, city residents disposed of approximately 14,000 tons of garbage, but only 1,200 tons were considered recyclable, the data show. Approximately 67% of the recycling occurred on Mondays, when Wards 1, 2 and 3 on the East Side have trash collected.

But in other parts of the city, where neighborhoods tend to have more multi-family homes, the recycling rates collapsed. On Wednesdays, when parts of Silver Lake, Olneyville, Manton and Mount Pleasant have garbage collected, the rate was just .43%. On Fridays, the trash day for parts of Smith Hill, Federal Hill and the South Side, only .45% of the waste on the curb was recycled.

The recycling rate hit 9% on Tuesdays in the North End, but was just 4% on Thursdays when the rest of the South Side had its garbage picked up.

“It is important to note that the days where recycling is low, it is not due to lack of recycling participation in those neighborhoods,” Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability, told Eyewitness News. “It is about contamination that spoils the entire truck load.”

When 10% or more of any recycling load include non-recycle material or messy materials like food or diapers, Bamberger said, RIRRC rules that the entire load is contaminated and requires it be sent to the landfill in Johnston. That’s when the community is fined $250.

Bamberger said the city has launched an education campaign targeting routes that were on the cusp of the contamination threshold. In Washington Park, for example, the recycling rate improved to 25% after residents were provided education material in Portuguese as well as Spanish and English, she said. The city also informed residents about bulky pickup services.

As part of an education and enforcement pilot program launched last spring, the city issued 680 warnings to residents during a four-week period. In the two weeks that followed, environmental inspectors issued nearly 160 tickets to residents who were recycling incorrectly. The city has also launched a website – PVDTrashTalks.com – to survey residents about trash collection services.

Now the city is looking toward the future.

Borg said the city’s contract with Waste Management of Rhode Island, its current trash collector, is coming to an end later this year. He told the Public Works Committee “all options are still on the table” as the city prepares an RFP for a new contract, including a new agreement with the existing provider or the possibility of the city taking over the operation.

At the same time, landfill tipping fees are projected to rise from $32 per ton to $39.50 per ton later this year, which could cost Providence additional $400,000. The city projects those fees will continue to rise in the coming years.

Borg said his goal is to improve Providence’s recycling rate to 15% in the coming years. The state wants to reach a 35% recycling rate, but the overall rate was just 24% in 2014, records show.

Borg told the committee he wants to add two more environmental inspectors in the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. That would give the city seven inspectors to cover 15 wards. Councilman Michael Correia, who chairs the committee, suggested Borg increase his request.

“I firmly believe we should have 15 inspectors,” Correia, a Democrat from Ward 6, said. “There should be one inspector assigned to every ward.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan