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The best way to recycle? The IRC vs. Ballard and Covanta

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(This article was last updated at 9:30 a.m. on June 10, 2014.)

The City of Indianapolis is looking to renew its contract with Covanta, the company that takes Indy's residential trash and burns it.

As our Renee Sweaney points out in her most recent Indiana Living Green column, recycling advocates are worried about the negotiation process because they fear that the city will commit to an option that will hamper the city's marginal curbside recycling progress. Indy residents currently recycle an estimated 10 percent of their trash.

Coventa sells the steam from its trash incineration to Citizens Thermal. Covanta depends on Indy to deliver at least 60,000 tons of "acceptable" trash per quarter; if deliveries lag, the city pays a fine based on the spot price for waste and how short deliveries were. On the flipside, the existing contract says the city is entitled to share a certain percentage of the revenue generated from steam sales. In addition, the existing contract makes allowances for the city to reduce its delivery commitments if it is successful in diverting more trash to recycling.

As the Ballard administration looks to renew its waste disposal contract (the current agreement expires in 2018), it may support the development of a proposed Material Recovery Facility, a "MRF" (pronounced "murph") for short. Traditionally, there are two kinds of MRFs, "clean" and "dirty." Simply put, those folks in Indy who are voluntarily paying to have their recyclables picked up at the curb are sending that waste to a "clean MRF", one in which glass, plastic and paper goods have been pre-segregated. A "dirty MRF" pulls recyclables from a single stream of trash - everything's mixed together, and it's up to Covanta to pull what's recyclable.

Since all the waste is comingled before it heads to a "dirty MRF," this process degrades both the quality and quantity of potentially recyclable materials. (Once the pizza sauce hits the cardboard box the pie came in, that cardboard can't be recycled - and food waste, pet waste and dirty diapers can all potentially contaminate "clean" recyclables during the comingling that happens in a "dirty MRF.")

For Covanta's part, they're loath to refer to their proposed facility as a "dirty MRF." James Regan, director of communications for Covanta, told NUVO the proposed facility is "a state of the art automated material recovery facility. ... One of the main differences between something like this and a dirty MRF is the technology involved. Traditionally, dirty MRFs were a kind of hand picked sorting of materials by personnel, and called dirty MRFs because they were dirty facilities. This will ... [use] some of the latest mechanical and sensor-based technologies. "

The mayor's position is that the new system represents a vast improvement. Marc Lotter, Director of Communications for Mayor Ballard, told NUVO, "This innovative technology solution is designed to capture up to 90 perecent of recyclable materials and will gather material from 100 percent of the population at no cost, not just those who pay to participate. It requires no additional effort from people at home and will have no impact o those who choose to use one of many other recycling services. It will also increase the amount of material recycled in Indianapolis by up to 500 percent.

"Covanta's Advanced Recycling Center is designed to recover materials that meet or exceed industry guidelines. Covanta has been in contact with several US companies, including those in the State of Indiana, who have expressed interest in buying these materials. The company is taking the risk that it can capture and re-sell this material. There is no risk to the City or its residents."

"We're going to be able to recover 80-90 percent of paper and cardboard, plastics, and metals," Regan said. Regan also claims that the new plant's operation will provide the energy savings equivalent of pulling 38,000 cars off the road.

Still, the total amount of projected recycled materials would amount to less than one quarter of the trash Covanta receives from the city. By comparison, researchers from Ball State University last year estimated in a study conducted by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs that 86 percent of the trash Hoosiers toss could be used to fuel industry and jobs.

Sweaney and the IRC think we can do better.

The Coalition issued the following statement: "The IRC is opposed to Covanta's proposal because the amount of material that is recovered when you combine recycling with waste is much less than what can be collected through a source-separated curbside recycling program. In addition, the contamination of recyclables that are separated from trash makes it much more difficult for that material to be recycled. Recycling only works if good quality material is returned to manufacturers to be turned back into new products. With newly available resources, we believe a tax-neutral curbside recycling program is possible for Indianapolis and should be considered before a final decision is made."

Another drawback, as Sweaney points is out, is that Covanta's technology can't yet recycle glass. According to Regan, "There's no market. We've analyzed what it looks like out there and it's just not economically feasible to do so at this time."

This contrasts curiously with a press conference held last December at Strategic Materials, a local glass recycler at 2550 W. Minnesota.

"We've already found Indiana to be a great place to do business, and the demand for our products is much larger than the current supply," Curtis Bucey, Stategic Materials president and chief operating officer, said at the time.

"We could sell over 20 times the amount of glass we currently collect from Indiana, and if more inā€state recycled glass were available from sources, SMI would seriouslyconsider expanding this operation and/or opening additional facilities in Indiana."

The Public Works Board must first approve any contract that the city enters into with Covanta, But, according to the IRC, there's no requirement for a public comment period or hearing, nor is the City-County Council involved in the decision.

There's another thing that concerns recycling proponents, too: perception. If there's a Covanta MRF system in place, isn't it likely that some who are paying for curbside recycling will simply stop? The pitch that Indy's figured out a way to recycle at least some materials may well muddy the waters for those who are - or might eventually be - taking the extra time and spending the extra cash to drop their glass, plastic and paper products into a big blue bin. The perception that "the city's taking care of that" may discourage participation in voluntary recycling.

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