Published March 10, 2020
The Truth About Your Recycling Bin
By Todd McLeish
Approximately 62,500 tons of plastics ended up in the landfill in Rhode Island in 2015. Half of it could have been recycled through one of the state's recycling programs.
At first glance, the inside of the Rhode Island Municipal Recycling Facility in Johnston is a complex maze of conveyor belts, walkways and giant green machines with yellow and orange highlights, something like you might imagine at an old-fashioned industrial processing plant. But the unseen technology it uses to sort the massive quantities of recyclable materials generated by Rhode Islanders is impressive.
A recent tour started at the tipping room floor, where trucks lined up to dump their load of mixed recyclables — collected curbside from residents throughout the state — on the cement floor of a giant open-ended warehouse-like structure. That’s where workers quickly assess whether the load is contaminated with too many items that cannot be recycled in the facility, like plastic bags, propane tanks, televisions and plastic coat hangers. If the load contains more than 10 percent non-recyclable materials, it is rejected and everything goes into the landfill (though more often than not, loads aren’t rejected unless they contain closer to 30 percent of non-recyclable material).
The bailing conveyor for plastics at RI Resource Recovery Center.
The loads that make the cut are added to a massive pile — 25 feet high and 100 feet long — of cardboard, paper and a rainbow of plastics, metal and glass. Workers driving front-end loaders then dump the materials from the pile into a drum feeder that delivers it into the plant at an optimal rate for sorting. The conveyor soon reveals numerous hidden items that don’t belong in anyone’s recycling bin — paint cans, oversized containers, jars that haven’t been emptied of their contents, and household trash — that four men wearing hard-hats and gloves try to pull out before they pass by.
And then things get complicated. The remaining materials on the conveyor then hit the first of several “star screens,” a sorting device that flips light-weight materials upward while the rest travels down. The first star screen directs large pieces of cardboard out of the mixed materials. “It’s a little physics and a little geometry,” said Jared Rhodes, director of policy and programs at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, who was leading the tour. “The big stuff surfs over the top while the rest goes down below.”
A few yards away, another star screen positioned at a steep angle delivers most of the rest of the paper products off the conveyor, leaving just plastics, metal and glass still to be sorted. A magnetic belt then directs the steel and tin containers in one direction, while a device called an eddy current repels the aluminum in another direction. An optical scanner then shoots a beam of light to identify each of the remaining materials by their reflectivity, and a jet of air directs each item wherever it needs to go. Glass is diverted through a breaking machine and then into a hammering mill to pulverize it.
Plastics are dropped below to a final conveyor, where another optical scanner separates it by color — clear, colored and natural (think gallon milk jugs). From there, the plastic goes through a bailing machine that spits out 4-foot square bails of plastics, which are stacked five high and six deep around three walls of the bailing room. Trucks from companies seeking to acquire the materials then back up to the adjacent loading dock to pick up whatever they need.
“There’s a lot of moving parts here,” Rhodes said. “This is the end of the line. And the beginning of another one.”
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The Municipal Recycling Facility is an efficient system for sorting plastics and other recyclable materials and preparing them for pick-up by those seeking the raw materials, but far too much of it is contaminated by items that should not be placed in the recycling bin in the first place. And Rhode Islanders recycle just 25 percent of their trash via their recycling bin.
Plastics are a huge part of the problem. Rhodes points out that just nine percent of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, and plastics production is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2025. About 78 million tons of plastic packaging are produced every year around the world, and 40 percent of it ends up in a landfill somewhere. The situation in Rhode Island isn’t any better.
About 62,500 tons of plastics ended up in the landfill in Rhode Island in 2015, according to Krystal Noiseaux, the former education and outreach manager at Rhode Island Resource Recovery. Half of it could have been recycled through one of the state’s recycling programs.
“There are a gazillion plastic items that can’t be recycled at all,” said Noiseaux. “Even if we do everything we can and everyone is fully participating, there is still going to be a lot of plastic that needs to be landfilled because recyclers don’t want it or can’t process it or we can’t produce it in the quality or volume they need.
“Unfortunately, there has been a big change in the composition of the materials we have to manage,” she added. “More and more products are being made from plastic; companies are changing to plastics because it’s lighter to ship.”
To minimize the wasteful use of natural resources that are used to produce plastic and reduce the litter that accumulates seemingly everywhere you look, Audubon advocates for the elimination of single-use plastics. It also encourages all Rhode Islanders to remember the mantra of the three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle — and to emphasize the first two, reduce and reuse, rather than relying exclusively on recycling.
The tipping floor is where the loads of recycled materials are assessed to determine any contamination with items that cannot be recycled, like plastic bags, propane tanks, televisions and plastic coat hangers. If the load contains too many non-recyclable materials, it is rejected and everything goes into the landfill.
Not doing so has significant implications.
Because plastics do not biodegrade, the growing quantities of plastics that end up in the landfill have serious ramifications on the life expectancy of Rhode Island’s Central Landfill. At the current rate of trash being landfilled in the state, the landfill is expected to run out of space in 2034. And while there is a planning process under way to determine how to address future waste disposal needs, there is little space available to expand the landfill at the current site.
“No other city or town is jumping to be the next home of a landfill,” Noiseaux said. “We’re prohibited by law from operating any waste-to-energy facility. Other states are putting trash on rail and sending it to the South or Midwest where there is plenty of space, but getting it there is going to be more costly for Rhode Islanders.”
To address some of these issues, some companies are now making products that they claim are compostable or biodegradable, like utensils and plates, but most are designed to be composted in commercial compost facilities, not in backyard compost bins.
“They’re not biodegradable in the way that people imagine once they’re buried in a landfill,” said Noiseaux. “The thought that these things are going to magically biodegrade in the trash isn’t accurate. There isn’t a recycling program for compostable utensils, so it’s going to the trash. And small odds and ends like that have a tendency, between your house and its final burial, to end up in the environment as litter.”
Audubon has been making great strides in reducing its use of plastics and increasing its recycling rate in its daily operations. It has paid particular attention to eliminating single-use plastics at its major events, which hasn’t been easy, considering the popularity of the events and the complexity of meeting the expectations of those in attendance.
During Raptor Weekend, for instance, which attracts over 2,000 people annually, Audubon used to sell about 600 plastic bottles of water each year. Now, in an effort to reduce the event’s carbon footprint, Audubon sells none. Instead, attendees purchase 25-cent compostable cups that they fill at a large water cooler donated by Crystal Springs. Other beverages are available in cans or bottles that are more easily and more completely recycled than plastic bottles. Plastic straws are no longer available at the event either, though reusable metal straws may be purchased in the gift shop.
Most Audubon events now feature compostable plates, cups and utensils that are sent to and later processed at a commercial compost facility. Even the garbage bags are compostable.
“We try to be very conscious about it. We try to walk the walk,” DiMonti said. “Even when doing crafts with kids, we try to use natural materials, items that can go into the recycling bin or the compost bin.”
Sustainable living programs are held throughout the year at the Nature Center and other Audubon wildlife refuges that focus on recycling, composting, and related themes. Both the Nature Center and Audubon Headquarters at Powder Mill Ledges in Smithfield have installed water bottle filling stations so that visitors can bring their reusable bottles and fill up before they hit the trails. And because of the Nature Center’s location along the bike path and shoreline, staff, volunteers and campers regularly collect large quantities of plastic bottles, plastic beverage cups and other recyclable materials during periodic cleanups.
“Reduce, reuse, and recycle is wrapped into everything we do,” DiMonti added. “We’re very conscious of what we use and how we use it.”
That level of consciousness about our use of plastics must resonate throughout the land if the growing plastics crisis is going to be solved.
“We talk all the time about the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra, and it’s important to remember they are ordered in that way for a reason, from the most impactful to the least,” said Noiseaux. “The most impactful is not obtaining things in the first place. Reduce. Keeping materials circulating through the economy so it can have a second life is second. Reuse. And if it can’t be reused, recycle it.
“Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of wish-cycling — we want it to be recycled, so we put it in the bin even if it doesn’t belong there - and that does more harm than good,” she concluded. “Too much trash in the recycling bin means it all goes to the landfill. So learn the rules of recycling, apply them in good faith, and we’ll take it from there.”
Visit recycletogetherri.org for more information.