You’re Doing It Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to Recycling in the Ocean State

30 Dos and Don'ts of Recycling in Rhode Island_Puddingstone Post_Seattle 1990s recycling

Recycling, old-school style. A woman in Seattle recycles glass in a city bin before the advent of residential collection. Photo via Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons 2.0.

Summer feels so close from this side of April that I can practically taste my first Del’s frozen lemonade. But if your New England genetics are anything like mine, you may also be experiencing the vernal urge to throw wide your windows, pull on some mom jeans and clean with puritanical fervor.

Step one of a good thorough house cleaning: a massive de-cluttering. But before you stock up on jumbo sized garbage bags, consider that a surprising number of things you’ll want to toss out could be going on to a second life through donation, curbside recycling, special community drop off days, private organizations, and even your weekly farmers’ market.

With Rhode Island’s single landfill nearing the end of its lifespan, we could all make a little more effort to reduce our trash volumes. Our Central Landfill in Johnston is expect to be full to the point of closure in just over 20 years. And while that may seem like a lot of time, shutting down that dump is going to be a pretty big deal. “Whatever comes next is going to be extraordinarily expensive – in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Sarah Reeves, Director of Public Policy, Programs, and Planning for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. That’s why the team at RIRRC, which is responsible for managing our state’s solid waste and recyclables, is committed to using every last inch of space in our landfill as efficiently as possible, and recycling is a big part of that.

The ins and outs of proper recycling etiquette can be a lot to navigate, so in honor of Earth Day later this month, here’s a list of major recycling dos and don’ts to help you sort through the clutter.

30 Dos and Don’ts of Recycling in Rhode Island

1. DON’T recycle things you can tie lots of knots in.
Remember the machine that made breakfast in Chitty Chitty bang bang? Imagine that, times 10 million, and you get the materials recycling facility in Johnston. Things that can tangle, snare, and knot around that equipment – think cable, wire, rope, fishing line, chain, big sheets of plastic, and textiles such as sheets and towels – cause frequent shut downs and safety hazards. Do your part to keep RIRRC employees and equipment safe by keeping “wrap-ables” out of curbside recycling.

2. DON’T recycle things that coat.
Anything that can squish, smear, leak, and subsequently coat recycling equipment should never be recycled. But, according to Sarah Reeves, greasy containers, cans of paint, dirty diapers, whole chicken carcasses, half eaten burritos, take out containers full of food (which wouldn’t be recyclable even if they were empty, see no. 12), and even used needles make their way into the recycling stream on a daily, and alarming, basis. The repercussions of these items leaking in the facility range from slowing productivity, costing money, and damaging equipment to seriously endangering the lives of workers and being just plain gross.

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Monica Geller, my hero. Gif via the daily touch.

3. DON’T buy into the idea that if you recycle something incorrectly, someone will fish it out for you.
RIRRC processes 115 thousand tons of recyclables each year, and while there are employees who spot check the waste stream, grabbing what they can as it passes on a conveyor belt, they are often monitoring a pile two feet deep. In other words, tip of the iceberg. And the notion that your curbside crew will reject your bin if they spot non-recyclables is becoming a myth as municipalities switch to automated bin systems. RIRRC makes it a priority to educate the public about proper recycling, but ultimately, the responsibility falls on the people generating the waste. (That’s all of us.) So don’t just toss those flyers into the, ahem, recycling; pay attention to what they have to say.

4. DO disregard the old “ones and twos” rule about plastics.
Recycle any clean, empty plastic container that’s 5 gallons or smaller. And if it isn’t a container, don’t recycle it. Tooth brushes and plastic hangers, for example, should be tossed out. (See no. 20 below for more about plastics.)

5. DO mark your calendar Saturday, April 16th, 2016.
Got hard-to-recycle items like scrap metal, large rigid plastics, bicycles, and more? Bring them to the Newport Clean City Recycling Day at Easton’s Beach (Newport residents only), and electronics, hazardous waste, and styrofoam to the Eco-Depot at Second Beach in Middletown (all Rhode Island residents). For details on both events, head to the City of Newport’s website.

6. DON’T put clothes, shoes, accessories, and other textiles in the trash. Like, ever.
Textile production is a resource hungry monster: one cotton t-shirt, for example, takes about 700 gallons of water to make (in addition to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, dyes, and fuel) and releases CO2 when it decomposes in a landfill. Now think about this: According to Elle.com, the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing, or the equivalent of 191 t-shirts, every year. Most of those textiles can be recycled at local donation bins, even if they are torn or stained. So keep a bag under your sink to collect all those solo socks until you’re ready for a bin run.

7. DO consult RIRRC’s online A–Z index when you can’t figure out how to get rid of something.
If you’re still stuck, try pinging their Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter accounts so that others can learn from your question, too. Or else just contact them directly.

8. DO start composting at home.
The city of Newport is only equipped to collect and compost yard waste for the time being. However, approximately 28-29 percent of all domestic refuse is compostable. By diverting biodegradable kitchen waste like veggie scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, and tea bags from our landfill, we could extend its life by years. Many options for backyard composting exist. No yard? Bring your kitchen scraps to the Aquidneck Island Growers’ Market, where they’ll be used to enrich the soil of our island community farms.

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Plastic bags begone. Make like stylish Jane Birkin (before Hermès invented a bag for her) and carry a shopping basket everywhere you go. Photo via Marie Claire.

9. DO support local businesses that offer recycling programs.
As if you needed any more reasons to shop locally, many stores offer specialized recycling options that make us heart them even more. Newport Hardware will take your compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), fluorescent tubes (up to 4 feet long), and  rechargeable batteries, which are all considered hazardous waste and should never go in the trash or recycling. Beach Paint in Middletown collects leftover house paint (both latex and oil) which is then donated and repurposed for low-income housing projects. (No spray paint, unlabeled paint, or leaking cans, please.) Check with your neighborhood dry cleaners, wrap and pack stores, and garden centers to see if they take wire hangers, packing peanuts, and tearable plastic flower pots (the rigid ones are ok to recycle!), respectively.

10. DO follow the plastic “rule of thumb.”
Even if you always bring your reusable-tote A-game when shopping, stretchable plastic film is inescapable. But if you can stretch it over your thumb, it can go in the shopping bag collection boxes found outside of grocery stores (exception: cling film). Set aside newspaper sleeves, plastic mailer envelopes, dry cleaning bags, and clean and dry food packaging (such as sliced bread bags) and bring them to a bin. If you absolutely must throw a bag in the trash, tie it up in knots first: This helps it to stay buried in the landfill, preventing it from blowing away and landing in our waterways.

11. Renovating your home? DO check with local demolition salvage groups before you get your wrecking ball on.
While house demolition waste cannot be placed in curbside recycling or trash bins, numerous local groups will haul certain materials away, and can even save you money in reduced dumping fees and tax-deductible donations. The non-profit Green Goat works to find new projects for unwanted building materials and appliances, like affordable housing initiatives. Local construction companies Mello (847-3377), J.A.M. (847-7163), or Peckham Brothers (846-0274) may take rough landscaping materials such as asphalt, brick, and concrete for free.

12. DON’T recycle “waterproof” cardboard items, like coffee cups…
Also known as “wet-strength fiber,” this paper material features a plastic lining that keeps liquids from soaking through. Ice cream and Chinese take-out containers are other delicious examples.

13. …But DO recycle juice, milk, and broth cartons, as well as tetra-paks and their plastic caps.
You know, like all those coconut waters you’re going to go through doing this spring cleaning.

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The Central Landfill in Johnston, RI – the state’s main waste facility – is likely to reach the end of its lifespan by approximately 2035. Photo by Colleen Doyle.

14. If it plugs in, there is a good chance that Indie Cycle will take it.
Check out their website to learn more about recycling electronics at local farmers’ markets and events. Other options for unwanted office electronics, such as computers, small devices, power cords, cables, printers, and ink cartridges include Staples, Best Buy, and Office Max.

15. DO donate your old cell phone.
Non-profits such as  Cellphones for SoldiersNational Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Cell Phones for Life help put used devices in the hands of people who need them. Or securely recycle it through your mobile network store, or at Newport Hardware. Also, consider the impact that upgrading to new technology has on the planet and the lives of others. Research has linked the mining of the rare minerals found in our cell phones to the perpetuation of human slavery in war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, as NPR recently reported. Make that iPhone last, and invest in a shatter-proof case instead.

16. DO hold on to natural wine corks (but not synthetic ones).
Fond of cracking a good bottle after a long workweek? Hang on to those corks! On your next trip to Whole Foods, you can leave them in recycling bins at the entrance. Cork comes from forests in the Mediterranean with biodiversity levels second only to the Amazon. Help reduce logging pressures in the region by keeping your pre-used cork in circulation.

17. Upgrading to cloud storage? DON’T dump all those writeable CDs on which you’d previously archived your life.
While CDs, DVDs, and their cases cannot be recycled through Rhode Island’s curbside programs, the CD Recycling Center of America accepts mail in donations, so go ahead and cull your summer mix collection, worry free.

18. DON’T reattach metal caps to their glass bottles.
Beer, soda, and other glass bottle caps must be recycled separately from the vessels they top. If you want to go the extra mile to make sure all those little caps make it through the sorting process and don’t clog up RIRRC machines, fill up an empty can halfway with the tops, then pinch it shut with pliers.

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RISD graduate Colleen Doyle of the No Trash Project documents the ride up to the top of the Johnston Central Landfill. Photo by Colleen Doyle.

19. DO, however, reattach plastic caps to their plastic containers.
Despite the rule above, plastic caps should stay with their plastic partners.

20. DON’T be afraid to recycle teeny tiny plastics from your bathroom, like dental floss containers, contact lens cases, and deodorant sticks.
Just make sure that any foil seals are removed, that they are clean and empty, and that plastic caps are reattached. Plastic cosmetic cases are ok too, as long as they don’t have mirrors or metal parts.

21. DON’T recycle plastic-foil hybrids.
Yogurt lids, candy wrappers, and chip bags should go straight to the trash.

22. DON’T recycle (or compost) plastic labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable”…
Unfortunately, this kind of serveware (which is typically made from a corn starch polymer) is designed to break down in large commercial composting facilities only, and Rhode Island does not currently have one for residential waste. Bottom line: Stick to reusable china and cups whenever possible.

23. …But DO recycle clear plastic iced coffee cups and the like come summer (and all year).

24. DO hang on to dryer lint, cotton balls, and pet fur.
Seriously, they can go right in your compost bin, as long as long as your load of laundry contained only clothing made from natural fibers, like cotton and linen. Don’t compost dryer sheets, or lint from clothing like fleece and polyester, which contain small particles of plastic. While you’re at it, think about switching to dryer balls, which soften fabrics and are reusable and free of chemicals. And all that beach sand and dog fur you just swept up after taking Fido to the beach? It’s ok to compost, too.

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Composting at home is a beautiful, fertile mess that could divert almost 30 percent of household and garden waste from the Johnston landfill. Photo by Joi Ito via Creative Commons 2.0.

25. DON’T recycle disposable lighters or gas cans.
These are never truly empty, and since they contain combustibles, they endanger workers in the RIRRC facility.

26. DO recycle aerosol cans that are completely empty.
To test, make sure they make no noise and emit no air when you hold the nozzle down.

27. DON’T dump cooking oil down the drain.
Small quantities can be thrown in the trash, but large amounts should be brought to the island’s recycling drop off station. For commercial volumes, consider allowing Newport Biodiesel to collect from your kitchen.

28. DO pile up scrap metal, such as hardware, wire hangers, and keys.
Just don’t place them in your curbside recycling, which only accepts metal and aluminum cans, foils, and lids. But private scrap metal recyclers exist around the state, and may even pay you for your load.

29. DO take a look at RISD graduate Colleen Doyle’s blog, the No Trash Project.
It’s full of inspiring ideas and beautiful articles chronicling her commitment to wasting, well, pretty much nothing.

30. DO look into taking a tour of the RIRRC facilities in Johnston to get a better idea of where your waste goes.
I’ve never forgotten my elementary school field trip there: The magic sorting process of the materials recycling facility, the impressive ride up the landfill, the plastic bags flying around at the top (and the trick about tying knots in them to help them stay buried, which I learned that day). Most astonishing, though, was the warehouse filled with gigantic cubes of crushed plastic, ready for shipment and awaiting the journey towards a second, third, or fourth life.

Caroline Goddard is a photographer, writer, and the blogger behind Hope State Style. A proud Rhody native with a degree in Visual Arts from Brown, she loves telling tales in images, focusing her camera on regional culture and off-beat, indy weddings. One part earth child, one part wanderer, she divides her time between Newport – where she's starting a tiny backyard farm – and the rest of the world. Recent travels have taken her to Paris; Reykjavik; and Paros, Greece. But since she just ordered a dozen fruit trees for her yard, she's probably going to stick around for a bit. Follow her adventures via Instagram @hopestatestyle.

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