One Square Mile Johnston: A Visit To The State's Largest Recycling Facility

Jan 30, 2017

Virtually all Rhode Islanders have at least a loose connection to the town of Johnston. Almost all of your junk -- trash, dried out Christmas trees, even used paint -- winds up at the Johnston Landfill.  Those items are all sorted and processed in different parts of the sprawling complex.

Most material goes to the landfill, but more and more of it now goes to a recycling facility at the site. As part of our series One Square Mile: Johnston, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender paid a visit and reports that while the Ocean State is recycling more, we’re not great at keeping what’s not recyclable out.

Every day, Edwin Rivera stands on what's known as "the tipping floor", where garbage trucks from cities and towns across Rhode Island, literally tip their recyclables out to be sorted.

“I’ve seen everything over here,” said Rivera, who watches all of the debris for trash that doesn't belong.

And it's a lot of debris. Some 400-500 tons of recycling comes into this facility each day. 

“I’ve seen an entire couch. I’ve seen tires, broken down furniture, dirty diapers, all kinds of stuff.”

In case you’re wondering, an entire couch is not recyclable. Neither are any of those other items Rivera mentioned. In his four years as a supervisor here, he’s seen non-recyclables ranging from the mundane to the macabre.

“The skin of the deer with the head attached,” said Rivera. “And not just once. The first year I saw it, there was about four of them.”

And while Rivera can laugh about the deer carcasses now, non-recyclable items sneaking into this facility are his biggest daily challenge. If he catches them here on the tipping floor he can point them out, and workers in front-loaders can scoop them out of the way to be hauled to the landfill. Some loads are so contaminated with non-recyclable items that entire trucks bound for recycling have to be re-routed to the landfill.

A conveyor belt carries mixed recyclables through this 75,000 square foot recycling facility.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Despite the vigilance of Rivera and his staff, many items slip through and end up on the large conveyor belt that carries the detritus along the multi-level maze of belts and sorting equipment in this 75,000 square-foot facility, one of the largest of its kind in New England.

In the pre-sort area, four workers stand at the conveyor belt rapidly grabbing anything that isn’t recyclable as it whizzes past, stuffing those items down metal chutes. Rivera calls this the first line of defense.

Workers in the pre-sort area grab non-recyclable items as they fly by on a conveyor belt.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“That’s their basic, number one purpose on that line is to remove anything that could get tangled up or cause damage to the equipment,” said Rivera. “You’ll see them remove large items. I’ve seen metal doors, engine parts. I’ve seen a concrete barrier.”

Items like that make this a dangerous job for the sorters, who wear white surgical masks and heavy duty gloves to protect themselves. Rivera thinks it’s likely that most people know not to put items like a deer carcass into the recycling bin, but people may be less sure about other items, such as kitchen knives, hypodermic needles, and propane tanks.

In the last year, Rivera says there have been more than a dozen injuries to workers handling non-recyclable items. Things like wires, hoses and plastic bags get caught in the system and can temporarily shut down the entire operation.

Workers wear surgical masks and heavy duty glove for protection.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Krystal Noiseux leads education and outreach for Rhode Island Resource Recovery, the agency that runs the Johnston landfill and recycling facility.

“One of the reasons that we think people are getting a lot of trash in the recycling is that people are still confused about what should or should not go in their recycling bin or cart,” said Noiseux.

She believes Rhode Islanders are perhaps a little too enthusiastic when it comes to recycling, accidentally flooding the facility with trash. And she has a deceptively simple solution: changing the signage on your recycling bin.

“So we joined a national initiative, called ‘Recycle Across America,’ and the idea behind this initiative is to standardize the labels that are on recycling receptacles across the country,” said Noiseux.

The new label is a blue and white sticker about the size of a half sheet of paper. In English and Spanish, it reads “mixed recycling,” with images of the four groups of recyclables: paper, metal, glass, and plastic. Each group has some simple rules which will keep your recycling “clean.”

The standard label for recycling, shows exactly what is allowed to go into your recycling bin.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“When it comes to plastic, the only plastic items you should put in your cart are plastic containers,” said Noiseux. “They have to be a container. So a bottle, a jug, a tub, a cup, those are containers. A plastic clothes hanger? It’s plastic, but it’s not a container, so it never belongs in your bin or cart at home.”

That was news to me. The same rule applies to glass, Noiseux explained: Bottles are good. Light bulbs and window panes? No.

“And then we have metal, and the rule with metal is cans and their lids and foil. And that’s it. No other metal belongs in your recycling bin,” said Noiseux.

That means no frying pans, in case you were wondering, a common mistake, according to Noiseux. All flattened paper, cardboard and cartons are pretty much okay.

The nonprofit Recycle Across America aims to get the standardized stickers onto every recycling bin in the nation. Already Rhode Island Resource Recovery has distributed the free labels to schools, state agencies and cities and towns.

“We don’t expect perfection, and those labels wouldn’t result in perfect recycling, but if you follow those, your recycling is going to be in pretty good shape," said Noiseux. "We’re going to be able to sort it and process it and sell it, and we’re not going to reject those loads."

And rejecting loads with good recycling but too much trash is a problem because the landfill is quickly reaching its capacity. Increased recycling could extend the life of this facility.

Both Noiseux and supervisor Edwin Rivera hope one day to be able to recycle more of the items they currently reject. But until then Noiseux says Rhode Islanders need to be mindful of what ends up in their recycling bin.

Bales of sorted recyclables sit at the end of the long journey through the facility. They'll be sold to companies across the world who use the raw goods to make new products.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR