N. Providence recycling effort mired in mediocrity

N. Providence recycling effort mired in mediocrity

Town Council creates subcommittee to research plastic bag ban

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Nearly every municipality that has switched from the small blue and green bins to 95-gallon totes has immediately improved its recycling efforts. North Providence, however, has gone in the opposite direction.

When North Providence residents received their new blue and gold totes in the fall of 2015, the town became one of the last communities in Rhode Island to switch from the smaller bins. Mayor Charles Lombardi and others said at the time that they hoped it would help boost a perennial recycling rate hovering about 25 percent.

While Lombardi said three years ago that he didn’t think North Providence would see the 18 percent increase achieved in neighboring Pawtucket, he said he thought the town could achieve a bump of 8 to 10 percent in its recycling rate.

But the town’s current recycling rate is just shy of 24 percent, nearly 5 percent less than a one-time high of 28.6 percent with the old recycling containers.

“Our recycling rate is awful,” said Joe Riccitelli, a member of the North Providence Environmental Commission.

The 23.7 percent rate ranks the town at 29th of 39 communities in Rhode Island, said longtime Recycling Coordinator Bob Nascimento at a recent meeting of the Environmental Commission.

Lombardi this week said the continued stagnation – and even decline – of the recycling rate is part of the reason he doesn’t want to invest in new trash totes for all town residents. If the increased capacity of the recycling totes isn’t leading to better results, he said, he sees little reason to invest even more in the town’s waste program.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” he said.

He said the town employees continue to monitor recycling activity and remind residents where they can, but many items are still being incorrectly put into the trash.

The extra costs of the expanded recycling program totaled about $42,000 a year over four years, and Lombardi suggested in 2015 that increased recycling could help pay most or all of that amount. But instead, said the mayor this week, the town continues to pay higher fees for waste disposal, with fees going from $39.50 per ton to $47.80 per ton on July 1.

Town officials have considered a number of measures to improve recycling, including a pay-as-you-throw trash program, a plan considered last year to start charging residents 83 cents per trash bag to dispose of trash.

Nascimento said this week that he would put the pay-as-you-throw program in place tomorrow if he could.

“Unfortunately, the Town Council didn’t want it,” he said. “They feel it’s a tax on residents.”

Nascimento blames North Providence’s recycling problem on a continued lack of information getting to residents about what can and can’t be recycled.

“The problem is we’ve got to communicate more with the residents,” he said. “The main thing right now is promoting to the people how important recycling is, and what not to do.”

Many residents who do know the rules ignore them, according to Nascimento.

“People want the easy way out,” he said.

In many cases, residents are throwing recycling into totes, but first placing it into a plastic bag, said Nascimento. Those bags are then removed once they get to the Central Landfill in Johnston and hurt the town’s rate, he said.

Nascimento said there are many moving parts in the evolution of the town’s waste management practices, including an effort by some council members to seek bids on new trash totes to go with the recycling totes. The council has also discussed hiring someone to enforce lack of recycling by residents and businesses.

The council last week approved a subcommittee to research one significant change that could impact the local recycling effort. At Councilor Alice Brady’s request, the board formed a subcommittee to look into the possibility of implementing a ban on single-use plastic bags

Environmental advocate Barry Schiller, speaking on behalf of the Environmental Commission, lobbied for North Providence to join other communities taking action on plastic bags to help address a “worldwide problem.” This isn’t just an issue for communities near the ocean, he said.

Schiller said stores where people with lower incomes typically shop, such as Price Rite or Aldi’s, are able to keep costs down in part by not providing the plastic bags to shoppers. That counters a common misconception that costs for poorer people go up when bag bans are put in place, he said.

Nascimento also chimed in on the plastic bag issue, saying the town has been repeatedly warned to keep the bags out of the recycling. If state workers start rejecting loads due to the presence of plastic bags, the town will face a $39.50-per-ton fee (set to go to $47.80 in July) and $250 truck reloading fees, said Nascimento.

Officials couldn’t immediately provide figures on the financial impact of the town’s recycling issues.