PROVIDENCE — In 10 US states and one territory, many bottles, cans, and containers made of glass, metal, or plastic are as good as gold. They can be turned in for up to a dime a pop.
But not in Rhode Island.
There are few incentives in the Ocean State for people to pluck up the bountiful bottles and other trash clogging local waterways. It becomes even more obvious after a tempest like Tropical Storm Elsa floods urban streets, rivers, and lakes.
Discarded items float into stormwater drains or waterways that carry them like a conveyor belt of trash to the sea.
And the state isn’t responsible for the cleanup of litter that gets washed into the waterways. That burden falls on eco-conscious Rhode Islanders who are underdogs in the fight against potentially recyclable refuse.
“We focus on pollutants, rather than the debris,” said Angelo Liberti, administrator of Surface Water Protection for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Water Resources. “A lot of our work is on metals or nutrients that are dissolved and carried in stormwater. There are provisions in the designs for debris-like things.”
An unfortunate human-made mess churned up in the wake of Tropical Storm 🌀#Elsa is the people-generated litter. This is on the Blackstone, but @AlexaGagosz reported the same outcome on the Providence River earlier today. #EarthDayIsEveryDay pic.twitter.com/Df9fUdnlk9— Carlos R. Munoz 📰 (@ReadCarlos) July 9, 2021
Rhode Island municipalities are required to obtain permits for their storm drains, Liberti said. The street-level outflows — meant to stop larger debris — often drain out in local waterways or stormwater detention basins beside highways.
“They aren’t highly effective,” Liberti said. “The outlet structure is designed to keep floating debris within the pond. Then you have to go in and periodically remove it.”
That doesn’t always happen.
“A lot of times we don’t realize how bad something is until something breaks,” said Mike Healy, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Management. “One of the problems in a state like Rhode Island, an old state with an old system, is you can’t keep taking a bandaid approach.”
“The deluge of stuff you’ve seen at the Blackstone River, it’s quiet, but in its own way the biggest environmental problem we have.”
A 1990 report by the Environmental Protection Agency called the Blackstone River “the most polluted river in the country with respect to toxic sediments.”
There are countless ways for trash pollution to reach waterways that don’t include stormwater drains, according to Healy.
Spillover from garbage trucks or uncovered truck beds, outdoor events, illegal encampments, the wind, dumping on land or in creeks, leaving sports balls or propane tanks outdoors during flood events, and scavenging can all lead to trash ending up in the water.
Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy at Save The Bay, says there is no formal state or municipal cleanup efforts.
“It’s left to groups like Save The Bay to pick up what everyone else throws into the ground and river,” he said. “There are some good-hearted people who do that but not enough to keep up with the demand.”
Fixing Rhode Island’s problem with pollution will require changes in behavior, according to Hamblett.
A bottle deposit program — dubbed the bottle bill — would give value to plastic, metal, and glass containers. Of the 10 states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont — most offer a nickel a bottle. Rhode Island and New Hampshire are the only New England states that offer nothing. The General Assembly has considered legislation the past two sessions, but it hasn’t advanced beyond the committee hearing stage.
The Rhode Island Senate this year passed a ban on single-use plastic bags, but the legislation stalled in the House. These bags are typically used at supermarkets and convenience stores, and degrade into small pieces called “microplastics” that are now found in all state waterways.
“The biggest challenge in all of this is behavior,” Hamblett said. “We have become a throw-away society. People need to be aware of the impacts of their actions and even call out others who are littering.”
In addition to coastal cleanups, Save The Bay marks catch basins with messaging to remind people “Don’t Dump. Drains to the Bay,” to raise awareness.
July Lewis, volunteer and internship manager at Save The Bay, said people have always littered. She admits it’s a complex issue with no easy solution. The group has thousands of volunteers who participate in international cleanup efforts where they document every item they pick up.
“It’s a good question about responsibility, but one quick answer to that is no one person can do it,” she said. “It’s too big of a problem.”
Alica Lehrer, executive director for the Woonsaquatucket Watershed Council, cleans up the Greenway Bike Path and parts of the Providence River. They operate a trash skimmer that picks up a minimal amount of debris on the Providence River near the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier.
“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Lehner said. “As an environmental nonprofit it’s our mission to create wonderful livable communities. Trash is one of those things that makes it really a horrible place to live.”
Johnathan Berard, the R.I. director for Clean Water Action, said the lack of legal mechanisms has left everyone pointing fingers at other people to handle trash pollution. His group is pushing for policies to keep trash out of the waterways, and on the back end do cleanups.
“All of the blame falls to end-users,” Berard said. “If only people wouldn’t litter, if only people recycled properly, if only we had a better wastewater infrastructure. It’s all end-of-pipe solutions and they don’t work.”