Let’s Talk Trash

No, not that kind.

Back in Hudnut Administration days, Indianapolis entered into an agreement that was ahead of its time: rather than sending trash and garbage to rapidly-filling and hard to site landfills, we’d use it to generate energy. The City has continued that arrangement ever since.

The problem is, that was then and now is now.

What was a forward-looking effort in the late 1970s is a dinosaur in 2014. In the intervening years, most of America has (grudgingly) recognized the importance of recycling and reuse. Evidently, as with so many other city functions, news of the changes in what constitutes “best practices” hasn’t reached the Mayor’s office. Instead, Ballard has just announced plans for a ten-year extension of its contract with Covanta, the company burning our trash.

The proposed contract would not require people to separate out recyclable items–the promise is that Covanta will handle that messy job by “sorting” at a new plant. As environmentalists have pointed out, the proposed facility is what is known as a “Dirty MRF” (Materials Recovery Facility). It’s called dirty because the quantity and quality of the recycled material is dramatically degraded in the process.

The proposed agreement would recycle a mere 23.5% of the material. Even Governor Pence–hardly an environmentalist–has called for a goal of 50%. Furthermore, the agreement excludes glass, one of the most “recyclable” materials there is. Covanta says there is no ┬ámarket for it; experts say Indiana’s glass industry is desperate for it. Believe whom you will.

Dirty MRF’s are nearly extinct in the US. Clean ones–like the ones Republic and Ray’s operate locally–are proliferating.

Experts tell us that over 92% of what gets thrown away can be recycled or composted. But that requires a well-thought-out, free curbside recycling program, like those run by most other cities our size.

Doing things that made sense in the 1970s don’t always make sense 35+ years later, and “keeping on keeping on” isn’t public management.


  1. Agree 100%, as I do with most of your posts. Sheila, will you PLEASE run for mayor??

  2. I know that great strides have been made in all machines and mechanical operations but – a machine that sorts trash sounds like something from a science fiction movie. Just thinking about my own trash with possibly 4-6 recycleable items monthly; if I had more, I would pay for the pickup and struggle to get it down my driveway along with my weekly struggle with the new required city trash “carts”. I had to apply for the smaller size (46 gal) due to my disability; this required an appointment with a DPW employee to come to my home to view my disablity to qualify. My driveway has an incline so keeping control of this huge (to me) rolling “cart” is not easy. This past winter posed frequent problems so my trash wasn’t picked up weekly as I couldn’t get it down the ice and snow covered driveway – the “cart” would have drug me bodily down that incline:) What other new and exciting ideas does Ballard have in store for us? Will we need an inspection to decide if our trash qualifies as part of the 23% that would be sorted by this new multi-million dollar machine. Ballard is unaware that progress does not always mean improvement – especially in his administration.

  3. I would like to believe this is simply an uninformed decision based upon old/bad science. Unfortunately, the cynic in me believes this is corporate-welfare-as-usual – a business with a government contract is perpetually entitled to maximum profit with minimum change (while the most destitute and desperate among us must get off the welfare rolls and get “skin in the game” right away).

  4. I can tell that the terrible reporting done by the Star and IBJ has indeed been recycled/reused People will still have the same opportunity to have a separated (with glass) recycling for a whopping…..wait for it, six dollars a month. I imagine most people spend almost that much with morning caffeine habits; not excluding myself. However, for all the people that don’t care about recycling and would not go through the effort of separating trash and recyclables even if they had “free” curbside recycling, at least a percentage of that will now be recycled. Just for the record I am not completely for or completely against this proposal, I am just against all of the sub par reporting and misrepresentation. I pay my $18 every 3 months and I will continue to.

    I can’t help but chuckle at a professor using a link to Wikipedia.


  5. I am an alumni of Indianapolis DPW. If I remember, the original contract had protection for incinerator operator in the form of “put or pay”. The city agreed to deliver a daily minimum tonnage of trash to sustain the incinerator. In the panic of the 80’s over landfill capacity, it was probably necessary. Now it’s not such a charged issue, but the idea of recycling has become an accepted practice for most municipalities. I wonder what happens to the recycle material from our sports venues? Is it an exercise in sorting followed by incineration or is it really recycled?

  6. Great observation Sheila. Having lived a couple decades in the Northeast US, we became habituated recyclers. There, you were shamed or fined into aggressive recycling. We carried that attitude to Indiana where we hired Rays to dispose of our trash, then stumbled onto Rays recycling, costing $4 a month. Now, we put out a small amount of trash once every other month, mostly tree trimmings and true garbage from our indoor compactor. Everything else goes out in two orange tubs; one for glass/plastic/metal, the other for paper. We still have to watch the Rays trash guys who keep trying to dump our recycling tubs into their compactor truck, otherwise, everything works smoothly. And, we drive by one of Rays recycling centers (clean?) and see they are dedicated to recycling, not just re-blending after pickup. This is much simpler than the Northeast, but probably not as exacting, but it is a start.

  7. I have the recycling at my door. I put out 1/4 kitchen bag of trash per week now. The cost is tiny.
    This city makes it so hard for people to recycle things that all kinds of BAD stuff goes into the trash. Most people tire of trying to PROPERLY recycle a florescent light or batteries so they all go in the trash. All those nasty heavy metals go out the chimney and into your kids. GREAT plan Indy.

  8. JH, that’s an important point. This new contract with Covant will recycle 23.5% of material currently going to the incinerator IN ADDITION to the paid-subscriber curbside recycling. Right? If so, can you cite a (non-Wikipedia) source for that fact, please?

  9. We have been recycling since we lived in Europe. We have two huge bins from the city for our trash/recyclables. The trash pick up is usually one small 13 gal bag and the recycle bin is always nearly overflowing. We even considered composing but there are too many critters that those attract and I don’t want to clean up after them. Nearly everything is recyclable. You just have to get in the habit of cleaning it before you recycle it. For example, the Styrofoam that comes with your meat (the tray) at the grocery store. Rinse it off and recycle it. Plastic wrap, recycle. cardboard, recycle. You get the idea. It’s so simple. Ask yourself why do you have so much trash? Because maybe you aren’t thinking long term. Maybe.

  10. It is unfortunate that Environmentalism in it’s various forms has become rallying cry for the extreme right to oppose any part of it. It all seems to come down to a Liberal Plot to deny us the freedom to trash the planet. Labels such as Tree-Huggers, Eco-Terrorists are applied to Environmentalism.

    Recycling seems to be one of those third rails for politicians pandering to the extreme right. Pence will never institute mandatory recycling, which is really what is required. We had recycling in WW 2. I can recall the “junkman” from my earlier Baby-Boomer youth asking for “junk.” Conservation has become an obsolete term.

  11. EFK…I am not sure I understand your request. I never used the number 23.5%. I am only citing what is actually going on in the City. Or…..I can cite the terrible media coverage that everyone is trying to interpret.

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