COVENTRY -- With the Coventry Town Council’s approval last week, the town’s solid waste ordinance has been given more teeth in the face of a growing number of recycling violations.
The town council voted 4-1 to approve the solid waste ordinance with councilor Debra Bacon opposing.
Kevin McGee, the town’s public works director, has been working for more than a year on amending the ordinance, namely to provide a means of enforcing the recycling guidelines.
“Keep in mind that 98 percent of our residents comply with the rules and regulations,” he told councilors last Monday. “But the 2 percent who refuse to comply with the recycling, yard waste and trash guidelines result in tax dollars being utilized to pay for their noncompliance.”
The town is assessed a $250 fine each time a load of recyclables is rejected by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, most commonly due to contamination by trash, yard waste and non-recyclables. The town is charged a fee on top of that to dispose of the load’s contents at the landfill.
Compared to 2016, when the town had just one load rejected, Coventry in 2019 had 15 loads rejected. And that, McGee said, has cost the town.
“The recycling disposal noncompliance has cost the town thousands of dollars in fines and disposal costs,” McGee said, adding that to date the town has lost $8,884 because of it. “Each taxpayer who follows the guidelines should be outraged.”
Town Council President Kerry McGee said he was “appalled” by residents’ noncompliance.
“It’s not a hard thing to do,” he said. “Why are we going to cater to the 2 percent who just don’t care? This is a community, we all have to work together.”
On top of the hefty costs of rejected loads, McGee added, is the impact they have on the town’s recycling rate. In 2019, the town’s recycling rate averaged 44 percent - up from 32 percent prior to the town’s implementation in 2016 of its automated collection system. Still, he said, the town could do better.
Under the updated ordinance, residents found not in compliance with recycling guidelines will get a sticker attached to their bins. Residents will then receive two letters outlining the violations, with a third letter sent by certified mail.
“Only after this process has been exhausted will a violation be filed with the municipal court for a fine to be imposed and the possibility of loss of service,” McGee added.
The penalties for noncompliance, which McGee called “the final attempt” at getting residents to comply with the recycling guidelines, will include a fine of up to $300 with the possibility of imprisonment for up to 30 days, per the municipal court’s judgement.
Kerry McGee spoke in strong support of the proposed amendments.
“I just don’t understand why people would be so ignorant to the rules, and we have no recourse,” he added. “If you don’t have any teeth to this, then people don’t care.”
Councilor Gary Cote agreed, likening the recycling guidelines to traffic rules as he spoke about the importance of enforcement.
“People are cleaning their wood stoves and putting the ashes in the recycle bin and then putting recyclables on top of it thinking you won’t notice,” he added. “It contaminates the whole load.”
Councilor Ann Dickson said she’s heard from a number of constituents who were worried about the severity of the penalties that could be imposed for noncompliance.
“At first blush I thought this seemed very harsh,” Dickson said. “But I went to our town charter, and the town charter does say that the municipal court can enact fines up to $300 and 30 days in jail. So this ordinance basically just mirrors what is in our town charter.”
Bacon, on the other hand, said she’s opposed to the penalties outlined in the ordinance. Calling the $300 fine and possibility of jail time “way too harsh,” she argued that the consequences for noncompliance should be more reasonable.
“We have to make it so it bites a little so that people comply,” McGee replied, noting those exact penalties have always been listed as possibilities in the ordinance under the section that prohibits scavenging.
Irene Drew was one of two residents to take the podium during the public hearing on the ordinance amendments. Drew echoed Bacon’s concerns regarding the harsh penalties.
Cote said that although imprisonment is unlikely, it’s important that it be identified as a possibility in order to deter noncompliance.
“You have to draw the line somewhere,” he added.
Kerry McGee shared a similar sentiment.
“I don’t really foresee a jail sentence coming,” he said. “But if someone flagrantly tells me, ‘I don’t care what you say,’ then put them in jail.”
The ordinance became effective on its passage.