Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers.. I’m Megan Hall.

Today we’re answering a question from listener Liz Lee. She lives in Warwick, RI and wants to know whether she is supposed to separate her paper and plastic recycling. 

Liz Lee: My daughter is 1 and she loves to watch the garbage man come to pick up the trash. It’s really fascinating to her. What I noticed was – even though there are green bins and blue bins and I was diligently separating my plastics and my papers, I was like – they’re just dumping it in the same truck! 

Megan Hall: We had Liyaan Maskati and Elise Ryan from our Possibly Team look into this question. Welcome, Liyaan and Elise! 

Liyaan Maskati: Hi Megan.

Elise Ryan: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So Liyaan, what’s going on with Liz’s recycling? Why does her separated recycling get dumped in the same truck? 

Liyaan Maskati: To answer that question, we called Eric Earls. 

  Eric Earls: I’m the Public Works Director in Warwick. 

 Liyaan Maskati: Eric says that in Rhode Island, all recycling is single stream. 

Megan Hall: Single-stream? What’s that?  

Elise Ryan: That means that when your recycling is picked up by the collection trucks it gets all mixed up.

Liyaan Maskati: It is only separated later, once it has reached the Resource Recovery Corporation in Johnston, which is the landfill.  

Megan Hall: Does that mean we don’t need to separate our recycling?

Elise Ryan: No, not in Rhode Island. Here’s what Eric says:

Eric Earls: You’re not required to separate anywhere in Rhode Island. If it’s recyclable, then it can go into the same container. 

Megan Hall: Alright. But if recycling in Rhode Island is single-stream, why does Liz think she should be separating her recycling?  

Liyaan Maskati: There’s a back story…when the recycling program first began, some cities, like Warwick, were required to separate their recycling.

Eric Earls: They issued two recycling containers, there’s a blue bin and there’s the green bins, the blue bins were for glass, aluminum. And the green bins were for paper products. 

Liyaan Maskati: Since Liz has the two bins, that’s probably the source of confusion. But now, the recycling plant in Rhode Island has moved to accepting recycling in just one bin.

Megan Hall: When did that happen?  

Elise Ryan: It happened back in 2012. 

Liyaan Maskati: In fact, single-stream has been adopted in several states in the US because people couldn’t be bothered to separate their recycling.  

Elise Ryan: But, easier doesn’t mean better. In fact, in places where they do a good job of separating, recycled items are less likely to be dirty or contaminated and can sell for a better price. 

Megan Hall: So back to Liz’s question – does she need to separate her recycling?

Liyaan Maskati: No, she doesn’t need to worry about that. But, Eric says she SHOULD think twice about what she puts in her bin. 

Elise Ryan: For instance, NEVER put your recycling in plastic bags – they can get caught up in the recycling equipment.  

Eric Earls: Even though everything in that plastic bag is recyclable, but if they see that plastic bag, because the plastic bag itself is not recyclable, they can reject that load.

Liyaan Maskati: So if you’re in Rhode Island, don’t bother separating! But make sure you know what is and isn’t recyclable. That’s the most important thing.

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Liyaan and Elise!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and The Public’s Radio.

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