Glass to Trash: RIPR investigates

PROVIDENCE, RI – You can now streamline your recycling across the state. But an investigation by Rhode Island Public Radio explains why one of the most recyclable objects in your curbside container doesn't go where you expect.

Every Monday night, Gary Metts says he hauls two recycling containers out to the curb. One green. One blue. He lives in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Providence. It's a quiet area of town that looks straight out of 1950s. Single family homes. Small backyard gardens. Even chirping insects. Metts lives here with his wife and two small children. He says the weekly chore is part of his family's routine.

"We try to recycle as much as we can," he says.

Metts says it's a good way to teach his kids about sustainability and the environment.

"We've began to sort of teach them about the bigger picture of what it means. They're still a little young," he says. "But we're trying to get them taught as early as we can about how important it is."

But like many in the state, Metts had no idea that one item he put in his bin for recycling doesn't turn into something new. This item is also one of the most common items people across the state recycle, to the tune of 20-25,000 tons each year. Glass.

"It's a little odd that they wouldn't recycle glass. That almost seems like one of the simplest things to recycle."

So why doesn't the state recycle it?

To answer that you need to drive about 20 minutes west of Metts home in Providence to the Materials Recycling Facility at the Central Landfill in Johnston. It's operated by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. All the recycling taken from the curbs in Providence-- and all municipalities across the state--ends up here dumped in one giant pile inside the facility.

"All the recyclables, glass included, are included in this pile right here. So you can kind of hear the clinking every now and then, that is glass being rotated around and starting to be broken up," she says.

The Director of Recycling Services, Sarah Kite looks at the pile. She has on a hard hat, protective goggles, and a neon safety vest. A maze of conveyor belts and industrial machinery surrounds her. They're part of a new, multi-million dollar system that separates the recyclables so the landfill facility can treat each product individually, readying it for sale.

As for the glass, it was only profitable from 1990 to 2003. The landfill facility sold it to a company currently known as Strategic Materials--in Franklin, Massachusetts. It's one of the few, if only places in the region that buys recycled glass.

"The market for glass in this region is really, really small," she says.

Kite says the company stopped accepting the glass do to its inferior quality compared to other states in the region with so-called "bottle bills".

The bottle bill is also known as a container deposit law. And it requires consumers to make a tiny deposit on beverage items, like glass bottles, to entice the consumer to return their bottles and get their deposit back.

And that little bit of money allows for "bottle bill" states to pay people to sort the glass into colors . which is more attractive to glass recyclers.

Since Rhode Island doesn't sort, it's harder to find a buyer.

Nothing is truly recycled until there is a market to create another item," says Kite. "So you know you can put anything you want into the recycling bin. However, if there is no one on the other end who is going to purchase that material to make something new it won't be recycled.

When the landfill facility lost its buyer in 2003, it found itself stuck with tons and tons of glass and no buyer. But the facility was resourceful, and found a clever use for the glass: it reused it as cover material for the landfill. The state requires the landfill to place at least 6 inches of cover material over the garbage each day. Kite says they'd mix the glass in with construction and demolition debris. It was the perfect additive.

"It's inert. It doesn't react to anything. It doesn't cause any odors. And it was the perfect addition."

That's where the glass from your curb ended up for the last decade or so. But here's how everything has changed: that option ended when a new state law kicked-in this year banning the landfill facility from using glass as part of their cover material. And with no where else to put the glass it just gets treated like trash.

"Do you feel like it's misleading at all to have people, you know, put their glass into the recycle bins and have it, not-necessarily be recycled?" I ask.

"Up until a month ago when this bill passed, no. It wasn't misleading because we had an alternate use for it. Now we no longer have that additional use and it's an issue," she says.

So why? Why would such legislation sail through the statehouse?

To better understand one possibility, one needs to think back to last fall. It was a time when the landfill made headlines for engulfing the area in a horrid rotten egg smell.

Complaints began to flood the offices of the Department of Environmental Management last fall. It was an all hands on deck moment. The DEM recommended the landfill facility to take numerous steps to fix the odor problem. The House even formed a special commission to investigate ways to end the smell, too. It was led by Representative Stephen Ucci of Johnston. In a statehouse release he said quote, "We should leave no stone unturned as we look for a solution to this problem."

The landfill facility cooperated with the requests. The Chief of the Office of Compliance and Inspection at DEM, David Chopy, says there were numerous theories for the cause of the smell.

"Basically, it came down to two: inadequate cover material and inadequate gas collection."

During the height of the smell, the landfill facility had additional wells drilled to help remove methane gas. Both the DEM and the landfill facility say the existing wells had been flooded with water, allowing excess gas to escape and contributed to that awful smell. In addition to strengthening these gas collection systems, the DEM advised an immediate stop to the use of construction and demolition debris as cover material. David Chopy explains the reasoning behind that order.

"Now the problem that we have or could have with construction/demolition debris is that some of the construction/demolition debris has wallboard in it," he says. "Wallboard is gypsum material and it's organic. So when you put it in the landfill and it gets exposed to rain the bacteria starts to break down and it starts to give off sulfur. And that's the rotten egg smell that people complain about."

Chopy adds the landfill had processed wallboard for years without any problems. But the DEM wanted to eliminate all possible sources for the smell. The landfill's Sarah Kite, though, is adamant the gas was the main culprit for the smell, adding the cover material, including the glass, had little to do with it.

"There was a perception that the smells were caused by the use of construction and demolition debris as cover material. It simply wasn't the case," says Kite. "We'd been using the material as part of our cover for nearly ten years, with really no issues, at all."

Central Landfill began to cover the garbage with gravel and posi-shell, a spray-on material--sorta like cement slurry--that provides an instant seal. Kite says there was an agreement to reevaluate the situation in six months to a year. By March of 2012, the DEM says the rotten egg smell went away.

So what does all this have to do with glass?

Well, here's where it gets interesting. On May 23, 2012, an amendment was introduced to the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Its main sponsor was Representative Stephen Ucci of Johnston. The same guy who wanted no stone left unturned. The amendment would make it unlawful to use construction or demolition debris as cover material at any facility operated by the landfill facility. It listed off specific items contained in the debris like drywall and roofing shingles. But buried at the very bottom of the list were two additional words: "and glass."

The inclusion puzzles the folks at the landfill facility and the DEM.

David Chopy says, "No. No. There's no reason to stop using glass for odor reasons."

I tried numerous times to reach Representative Ucci to talk about the legislation. Again, he was the point man on the odor problems at Central Landfill. But this is all I got:

(Message) "You have reached Stepehn Ucci. Please leave your name and number at the tone. Thank you."

The legislation traveled to the House Finance committee on June 11, 2012. It passed the House the next day. And then it passed the Senate in concurrence the day after that. The bill became law on June 28th, 2012, about a month after its introduction, and without the Governor's signature. Kite says it will cost anywhere from $2 to $8 million dollars per year in additional costs to continue using the gravel and posi-shell as cover material. And adding to that frustration are those two words left in the bill, words that are now law.

"The, "and glass," is not being able to have another use for glass," she says. "And it's very difficult for people to want to be able to recycle their glass thinking it's going to have another purpose, now realizing it's just going into the landfill. So what are they going to think? They're going to think, "Why should I bother putting it into my bin?"

The landfill is in negotiations with Strategic Materials, the Massachusetts recycler, to accept the glass. But until that happens, all that glass you put into your recycling bins will be treated like any other piece of garbage.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you.