R.I. Needs Bottle Bill, Better Recycling Laws to Reduce Waste Problem
January 15, 2024
PROVIDENCE — Despite Rhode Island bans on polystyrene food containers, plastic straws and — its most recent, effective Jan. 1 — on single-use plastic bags, those efforts are likely to have only a negligible impact on the state’s growing plastic waste problem.
A joint report released last year by the state Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) revealed that most plastic material in Rhode Island isn’t actually getting recycled, it’s getting buried in the landfill with all of the other trash.
About 73% of all plastic material is getting buried in the landfill, according to the report. That’s more than 26,000 tons of the stuff every year. Meanwhile, only 7,000 tons of plastic are processed via RIRRC’s materials recovery facility into recycling, meaning out of every four pieces of plastic waste produced by residential homes across the state, only one will be recycled.
And the state is feeling the weight of all this plastic. A 2023 study by the University of Rhode Island estimated that the top 2 inches of the Narragansett Bay seafloor contains more than 1,000 tons of microplastics, which accreted over the past two decades.
And it’s not just in the bay. For years waste advocates have been calling attention to the state’s growing litter problem. Last year ecoRI News reported a nip pickup challenge run by state environmental groups collected 34,800 nips in two months across 31 municipalities.
Meanwhile, RIRRC is up against a hard deadline. The Central Landfill in Johnston is expected to reach full capacity sometime in the next two decades — the current date based on the facility’s intake is 2040 — and state leadership on the issue of what to do after that is sparse. Options for life after the landfill remain slim: expand the current landfill; build a new facility in another town; or pay to ship the waste out of state.
Jed Thorp, executive director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island, said the state needs greater understanding of just where and how plastic ends up in the environment.
“We don’t really know where exactly it’s coming from,” Thorp said of the microplastics in the bay. “Is it coming from stormwater runoff? Is it coming from the storm drains? Is it coming from litter found on the streets? There’s more sampling and research to be done.”
Thorp is one of the main advocates for a container deposit law, more commonly known as a bottle bill. How it works is customers typically pay a small deposit upfront, anywhere from 5-15 cents, when they buy a bottle container product, which can be redeemed when the empty bottle is returned to a participating location or redemption center for recycling.
As policy, bottle bills aim to increase plastic recycling rates and reduce litter by incentivizing consumers to collect and return empty plastic bottles. Container redemption policies have existed in some states since the 1970s, and both of Rhode Island’s neighbors, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have them in place.
States with bottle bill systems consistently see litter reductions between 69% and 84%, according to a study by the Container Recycling Institute. Total litter was reduced between 34% and 64% after enacting bottle bills.
While this year’s bottle bill has yet to be introduced on Smith Hill, the debate is far from new. Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, has introduced legislation five times previously, but each one failed to be voted out of committee. In an interview last month, Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, told The Providence Journal he was skeptical of a bottle bill and instead favored a “producer tax” on beverage containers.
Instead of passing the bottle bill last year, lawmakers chose to create a study commission to mull over the issue for another year. The commission, co-chaired by McEntee and Sen. Mark McKenney, D-Warwick, has met four times since September, and Thorp, a chief advocate for the bottle bill at the Statehouse and a member of the study commission, said the race is on for the commission to complete its work in time for the legislature to act on a bottle bill.
“Ideally, you want whatever the next version of the bottle bill is to reflect the recommendations of the study commission,” Thorp said. “It might be a challenge to have the study commission’s work done in time and have a bill in play this session.”
The joint bottle bill study commission is expected to meet again later this month.