By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
The recycling center at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) is considered, at least to the person who runs the quasi-public agency, a COVID-19 hot spot, with 10 employees testing positive for the virus during the past two months.
Public tours at the Johnston, R.I., facility have been suspended since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but the materials recycling facility (MRF) is still accepting, sorting, and shipping recyclable items collected from across the state. The single-stream recycling process is highly automated but still requires about two dozen line workers to remove plastic bags and reroute items the machinery fails to separate.
Seven of the sickened 10 employees have recovered and returned to work, with three still recuperating. The MRF continues to operate while taking a number of steps to reduce additional infections, such as installing plexiglass separators between the sorting stations. RIRRC is also providing third-party transportation to employees to reduce carpooling. Portable restrooms and hand-washing stations have been added. And employees are subject to daily pre-shift health screenings that include a temperature check.
“While we cannot pinpoint the root cause of the hot spot,” said Joseph Raposa, RIRRC’s executive director, “we are confident we have taken every conceivable step within the MRF to contain any spreading of the disease.”
COVID-19 has sickened recycling-facility employees nationwide and in Canada, as they have been deemed essential workers during the global pandemic. A MRF in Calgary was closed temporarily after employees were sickened. Recyclables were landfilled while the facility was cleaned. Columbia, Mo., suspended recycling collection after staff had to be quarantined because of exposure to the virus.
With municipal budgets strained, communities in other states are contemplating suspending curbside recycling to save money.
In March, Massachusetts suspended the use of reusable bags and closed its bottle-redemption program, which it plans to resume next week.
Waste and recycling impacts
The public-health crisis has had other impacts on waste management. Commercial waste heading to RIRRC’s Central Landfill is down about 50 percent, a result of the coronavirus-caused economic slowdown and higher dumping costs, known as tipping fees. Municipal waste, which accounts for about half of all waste, is up about 5 percent. Overall, the volume of waste being shipped to the Central Landfill is off about 25 percent since the start of the pandemic.
“We do not expect this to change until business starts to return to some new normal,” Raposa said during the May 27 RIRRC board meeting.
As part of its recently approved $67.7 million 2021 budget, RIRRC’s tipping fee for municipal waste will remain at $47 a ton. The tipping fee for commercial waste will increase from $85 to $100 a ton June 1, then increase to $115 per ton in 2022. The higher tipping fees are expected to further reduce the volume of commercial waste heading to the Central Landfill and extend its capacity by up to five years, to 2039.
As the landfill takes up more space, the administrative building, maintenance garage, and other buildings on the RIRRC campus will be demolished and new ones built across the street from the facility’s entrance on Shun Pike.
Recycling volume has increased some 3 percent since the start of the pandemic. After more than a year of a depressed market for recyclable paper, cardboard, and other fiber commodities, prices have recently climbed as much as 500 percent. Fibers account for about 40 percent of all recyclables in the state. Yet, even with the recent jump in prices, RIRRC’s recycling program continues to operates at a loss.
The agency must pay $11 a ton to have newsprint taken off its hands. It receives about $68 a ton for cardboard. Demand for metals and plastics is still historically low. Aluminum sells for $907 a ton, PET plastic for $211, and uncolored HPDE #2 plastic sells for $883 per ton, all down due to the poor economy.
Income this year from selling recyclables is expected to be about $6 million, or about half of what it was four years ago. Any shortfall is offset by waste-disposal revenue. Tipping fees generate about $60 million annually from the landfilling of some 850,000 tons of trash.
This year, for the third straight time, there will be no recycling profit sharing with municipalities. But there will be another $120,000 offered for grants for local recycling initiatives. The board also approved about $110,000 in relief for cities and towns that exceeded their cap for waste sent to the landfill during April and May.
Overall, RIRRC turns a profit. But in her latest budget, Gov. Gina Raimondo proposes transferring, or scooping, $5 million in 2021 and another $5 million in 2022 to the state general fund. If the scoops are approved, they will likely wipe out most budget surpluses for the quasi-state agency.