PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The head of the Providence Department of Public Works said he is going to demand accountability from the private trash company that has a multimillion-dollar city contract after a homeowner captured a garbage truck mixing trash and recycling on video.
The video was recorded on a security camera at the home of Peter O’Hara, who shared it with Target 12 after he says years of complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
The video from November shows a truck operated by the company, Waste Management, lumbering down Andem Street in Providence. The truck’s robotic arm is seen dumping green trash bins and blue recycling bins into its hold repeatedly as it rolls down the neighborhood.
O’Hara said he has emailed the city several times over the last three years, claiming this was a common occurrence after holidays when trash pickup is on a compressed schedule.
“I always get that email saying, ‘we’ll look into it,’ and then the next holiday trash pickup the same thing happens,” O’Hara said. “It makes you wonder why we spend all this time doing what responsible citizens of the city of Providence are supposed to do when they’re just going to come and dump everything in the same truck.”
Cities and towns pay a per-ton fee for trash dropped off at the quasi-public R.I. Resource Recovery Corporation in Johnston, but trucks hauling recycling don’t get charged. When an inspection at the landfill discovers a recycling truck has trash mixed in, the municipality has to pay the per-ton fee and is fined $250.
A city spokesperson confirmed the truck seen on the video was rejected at the landfill and was fined for having commingled refuse.
A review of rejected loads by Providence trucks at the landfill shows taxpayers paid just over $1 million in fines and fees for 10,382 tons of rejected loads in 2020. (The per-ton trash fee went from $67 in 2019 to $80 in 2020.)
The city has a $6.7 million annual contract with Waste Management to handle trash and recycling collection. Garrett Trierweiler, a Waste Management spokesperson, said the company never instructed its employees to commingle trash.
“We are taking this complaint very seriously and have reviewed related policies and procedures with our employees,” Trierweiler said in an email. “We have conducted a review of this situation with our employees and reinforced our policies and procedures relative to collection of waste and recyclables. Waste Management will continue our work with the city of Providence to provide exceptional waste and recycling collection services.”
Leo Perrotta, the director of the Providence Department of Public Works, said Waste Management officials told the city this was a one-time mistake.
“Do I believe that? I’m not so sure I do believe that, but that’s the explanation we were given,” Perrotta said. “We’re going to hold them responsible for this and whether there’s penalties to be paid in the future, that’s something that we will discuss with them. But it’s something that we can’t tolerate on our end because it’s sending the wrong message.”
For O’Hara, the video feels particularly insulting because city property owners can be fined if they fail to separate trash from recycling. DPW inspectors regularly audit neighborhoods and check recycling bins left out for pickup. If trash is discovered in a blue bin, a first-time violation comes with a warning, the second offense is a $50 fine, a third offense is $100, and the penalty can continue to rise.
Landlords are fined if their tenants are guilty of the infraction.
“They fine you if you put the recyclables in with your trash, they also fine you if you have things in your recyclable bin that are not actually recyclable,” O’Hara said. “But then they’ll just come and dump it all on the same truck anyway.”
In fiscal year 2020-21, Providence property owners were issued more than 3,300 citations totaling $160,000 in fines. A spokesperson said inspections slowed down in the spring during the first wave of the pandemic.
“I would be just as upset with that as anybody else, and we are, too,” Perrotta said. “It’s not right and we’re going to hold them accountable just the same way as we hold the resident accountable.”