Deep Dumpster Dive: Litter a Tough Problem to Solve at Misquamicut State Beach
August 23, 2022
WESTERLY, R.I. — Hundreds of umbrellas and folding chairs made the sand at Misquamicut State Beach hard to see from the pavilion above Rhode Island’s biggest and most popular beach.
As beachgoers traversed the entrances in the dunes to the beach, they passed something unique to Rhode Island state beaches: dumpsters.
Misquamicut is the only state beach that makes dumpsters available. Beachgoers at Roger Wheeler or Scarborough, where there is a carry-in, carry-out policy, have to take their trash with them when they leave.
At Misquamicut, seven dumpsters and one recycling bin line the entrances to more than half a mile of beach. The dumpster pilot program, which started four years ago, was meant to curb the beach’s trash issues. Still, piles of trash end up on the sand, in the parking lot, next to the dumpsters, in port-a-potties, and eventually into wildlife habitat.
By mid-day, a dumpster near the pavilion was bursting with bags of trash, looking like an overstuffed suitcase. Further down the beach, another dumpster wasn’t yet full, but already held the remnants of several broken beach chairs and the skeleton of an umbrella had been discarded behind it.
Although beachgoers, local business owners, and even those who run the beach agree that it’s a problem, working toward a solution is a complicated process, interviews with those stakeholders and public records reviewed by ecoRI News show.
The dumpster pilot program started at Misquamicut in 2018 as a collaboration between the Rhode Island State Parks & Recreation Division of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), which runs all state beaches and parks, the town of Westerly, and the Misquamicut Business Association (MBA).
The program diverged from the carry-in, carry-out policy started in 1992 at state beaches after local business owners led a public campaign to add dumpsters at Misquamicut, arguing the unique circumstances and environment around the beach called for a different set of rules.
“Carry-in, carry-out is the dumbest policy in the world,” said Caswell Cooke, a Westerly Town Council member and an MBA member. “No one that comes to Misquamicut State Beach from Hartford, Conn., is going to take a stinky diaper two hours home in the back seat of their car. Not happening.”
A 90-degree heat wave over the Fourth of July weekend in 2018 prompted the installation of a dumpster as the start of the pilot program, according to a letter from CJ Paliotta, a DEM Parks and Recreation regional. A beach-cleaning contractor said 4 tons of trash was removed from the beach, Paliotta wrote in the letter.
After the “Trash Crisis,” as the letter referred to it, the state agreed to place two receptacles, one for trash and one for recycling, at the beach. The MBA also provided an attendant who would separate improperly disposed off trash and recyclables, according to the letter.
The trash and recycling dumpsters were installed July 14, 2018, and “staff did not notice a significant decrease in the amount of trash in the parking lots,” Paliotta wrote. Within a few weeks, the dumpsters started to “emit a strong foul odor,” which was diminished “to a certain extent” by deodorizing the dumpsters, he wrote.
“There were a percentage of the patrons that utilized the provided dumpsters, but unfortunately, they were outnumbered by the number of patrons who decided to continue to litter,” Paliotta wrote.
Photos included in the letter show trash strewn across the parking lot and sand dunes.
The following year the number of dumpsters increased to seven (“one eight-yard container for trash and one two-yard container for recycling at every other beach entry point”), according to a document titled “2019 Trash & Recycling Recommendations.” Smaller “Big Belly” trash compacting units were also placed in the pavilion. Four seasonal employees were also hired to monitor the dumpsters and pick up trash. Interns were used to document the dumpsters’ effectiveness.
The state estimated the cost of the containers, collection and disposal, the Big Belly system, the new employees’ pay, and an outreach program to promote dumpster use would total $121,500.
But the actual cost was likely higher, said deputy chief of Rhode Island state parks Jennifer Ogren, explaining that each recycling load ended up being charged as a regular trash dump. “I don’t think we had one successful [recycling] dumpster make it to the landfill that was accepted,” she said.
To judge the effectiveness and public perception of the program, DEM surveyed 250 beachgoers at Misquamicut and 250 more at Scarborough (a carry-in, carry-out beach) during summer 2019.
Out-of-state residents made up the majority of both surveyed groups: 80% at Misquamicut and 62% at Scarborough.
The majority of both groups also gave each beach high marks on a scale from 1 (not clean at all) to 5 (very clean), but Misquamicut was rated slightly cleaner.
The survey also suggested that Misquamicut’s visitors placed a higher value on the dumpster than beachgoers at Scarborough. Most of the Misquamicut respondents said they would be willing to pay more for dumpster service, compared to 37% of those surveyed at Scarborough.
More than 80% of the beachgoers who took the Misquamicut survey said they were satisfied with the new trash bins and dumpsters and would use them to dispose of their trash going forward. Nearly 80% also said they thought having the receptacle and dumpster would decrease the beach’s litter.
“We did see some improvements” after the program started, Ogren said. “But we still were seeing a tremendous amount of trash in the parking lots. It’s almost where people would just come back to their cars and leave the trash by the vehicle wheels and then take off.”
Internal emails and the 2019 Trash & Recycling Study results following the summer season suggested it was the staff increase that made the biggest difference in litter reduction.
In a June 3 email from that summer, Rhode Island State Parks regional manager Kyle Cahoon wrote, “The trash initiative with the dumpsters is having mixed reviews at this time as people are still leaving trash in the parking lot but I am optimistic that this will get better once I am able to hire these new positions designated to staying on top of this.”
The study results also noted “the addition of seasonal staff to collect litter and trash has more of an impact on litter prevention than the dumpsters.” It recommended keeping the four seasonal staff members at Misquamicut and increasing staffing at all state beaches.
It also proposed looking into the use of cameras to deter littering and/or implementing a surcharge to cover trash fees. Ogren said they decided not to use a camera because enforcing littering fines would be difficult to manage unless someone was caught littering, and, although parking fees did increase at Misquamicut last year, that money goes into a general fund and doesn’t pay for any trash expenses directly.
DEM’s internal study also suggested that the Big Belly system be eliminated, because they filled up with trash and water too quickly, and decrease the number of dumpsters at Misquamicut and concentrate them around the main entrance to the beach around the pavilion. But when the bins were reduced during summer 2020, trash pile-up issues increased, according to emails reviewed by ecoRI News.
Ogren said the dumpsters have become a part of the beach management strategy at Misquamicut.
“We’re really committed to trying to keep [the dumpsters] just because we believe people traveling back two or three hours back home should not be bringing soiled diapers,” Ogren said. “Do we have issues? Yes. We find surfboards shoved down, blankets, like everything you can think of.”
Cooke, of Westerly, acknowledged that some people will always litter, but who want to be responsible will use the dumpsters. “The people that want to not be pigs, but don’t want to bring their trash back home to Springfield, Mass., in the car with their kids, they are using those dumpsters,” he said.
“They’ve come a long way, and we’re very happy that they’ve got something, but it’s still not enough,” Cooke said, adding that he would like to see some enclosures placed around the dumpsters and more signage.
Charles Trefes, the MBA president and the third-generation owner of the Atlantic Beach Park and the Windjammer Surf Bar, drives by the state parking lot to and from work every day. He agreed with Cooke that more could be done.
Before establishing the carry-in carry-out policy, “before the state decided to try that mess,” Trefes said, there were many more garbage cans around and on the beach that visitors used.
“We all have garbage cans, either at the entranceway or at the top of our parking lots that are on the beach side,” said Trefes of the local businesses in Misquamicut. “We all provide trash receptacles for people to be able to use to keep our property and our resources clean. The state, on the other hand, doesn’t feel the need to do so.”
Through the business association, Trefes said, he receives a lot of negative comments about the trash, but they arevmostly directed at the litter on the state beach, not the condition of the other public and private beaches along the shore.
“It’s been a bit of a problem down here. We, as in Misquamicut, get a bad reputation for being a mess. The problem is Misquamicut, in a lot of people’s minds, is that one parking lot and that one parking lot only,” Trefes said. “We’re not a parking lot. We’re a village.”
About 50 businesses operate within that area, he noted.
Trefese would like to see more trash cans, with some placed on the beach itself.
Ogren said she is not sure if Misquamicut would employ more dumpsters in the future but said they will not add trash cans. “It’s a proven issue that we’re bringing more problems to the beach than solving if you bring those trash cans back,” she said, noting that “aggressive wildlife” would likely have a feeding frenzy. (The workers at Salty’s Burger and Seafood warn customers to hold on tight to their food because seagulls have a tendency to snatch it right out of people’s hands.)
“We would have to be emptying them and washing them continuously throughout the day and that’s just kind of an impractical situation,” said Ogren, calling the addition of trash cans a “logistical nightmare.”
Staffing is an issue on its own. Although the 2019 Trash & Recycling Study recommended more staff at all state beaches, and DEM has positions open and room in its budget to hire workers, the national labor shortage has meant fewer applicants for the jobs.
The state would usually hire between 450 and 500 seasonal staff to help maintain the parks and beaches during the summer, but this year DEM has only hired about 65% of that number, according to Ogren.
“I know no one likes to pick up trash. It’s gross, but when you’re walking by something, if it’s a cup that’s blowing or a plastic bottle that’s rolling down the parking lot, I have yet to see our patrons just bend over, pick it up, and take that responsibility,” she said. “Just a little bit of effort on their part makes a massive difference in how we can manage and continue to manage these amazing places.”
A worker cleaning a port-a-potty at the beach, who asked not to be named, said he has found mountains of trash in portable bathrooms, even when the dumpsters are a mere few feet away.
“They say a dog will make a mess on the beach,” he said, referring to the restrictions on pets at state beaches, but “a dog won’t make a mess, people do!”
Still, he said he was glad the dumpsters were there for the people who didn’t want to make a mess.
The No. 1 item left on the beach and in the parking lot is plastic, according to a trash composition study from 2019. About 55% of the litter was plastic, with the next most common trash being processed paper and lumber.
Bob Siral, the state advocate for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, said beyond increasing signage and education, reducing the plastics and waste that visitors bring onto the beach could go a long way in reducing the trash that is left behind.
Just a few years ago, then-Gov. Gina Raimondo started a Task Force to Tackle Plastics. The state and DEM already have some projects to reduce pollutants and litter before they get into ecosystems. Both DEM’s Pollution Prevention Program and its Rhode Island Green Certificate Program offer assistance to businesses to reduce waste and single-use plastics.
Vendors at state beaches also have stipulations in their contracts to reduce the packaging and waste for their food products, Ogren said.