VIEWPOINT: Indianapolis needs to talk trash

July 21, 2008

Indiana has generous natural resources. I pumped some of those resources out of my sub-basement twice last month, and pulled some of its finer greenery from my roof and yard as well. The abundance is everywhere, from the farmlands and prairie in the north, to the farmlands, mines and even oilfields in the south. Drop a seed in most parts of Indiana and, if the neighborhood's not flooded out, that seed will grow nicely.

Ask me about my tomatoes. Don't ask me about trash. Instead, ask me about recycling. The history of it in Indy is difficult.

We have a lot of scenery in central Indiana, and it's marred by trash, cans and bottles. Other cities have downtown areas that are delightful and, I've found, have spirited recycling campaigns in full swing. There are three- and four-mouthed trash containers for paper, bottles, cans and even organics. They make recycling easy. Instead, we have a huge city incinerator with an insatiable appetite that fuels steam for downtown and government facilities. It's a waste.

Part of the waste comes from the fact that a lot of energy is consumed making convenience packaging and printed items. Long ago, beverage companies were able to convince the General Assembly that a deposit on bottles and cans was actually needless bureaucracy, although other states have found deposits simple to manage.

The long-term effect is that it's only by the accident of the high price of metal that there is now a class of scavengers among us who can live, if frugally, solely on legally recycled metal-mostly aluminum cans. I walked through Broad Ripple on a busy Saturday night last month. An enormous number of recyclables are thrown out there-with the trash. Bottles, cans, paper, boxes, you name it, are lumped together into bins, then forgotten until the bill comes.

Consumers have a similar difficulty. The containers used for consumer recycling are not only woefully tiny, but Indianapolis has a surcharge on consumer curbside recycling that further damns efforts to do the right thing. Centralized recycling centers, the kind you see in Wal-Mart and other parking lots, are therefore often full to the brim, their containers labeled with hostile rules. Doing the right thing is made more difficult still. In a better world, every item manufactured would have a recycling code on it so it could be more efficiently devolved after final use, but that's wishful thinking, as we can't handle just a few categories, let alone thousands.

We want to forget about trash. Put it into the receptacle and that's the end of it. Yet these goods take materials and energy to produce, and energy to dispose of by either burial or incineration or de-producing the item into reusable parts at a far lower material and energy cost. It doesn't matter whether you're a consumerist or an environmentalist. Conservation of resources benefits all of us.

Finding the infrastructure to allow profitable business models to aid in recycling needs to be thought through again. Lots of money now goes up in smoke, filling (and polluting) landfills. Most people are happy to use recycling containers and curbside or commercial recycling plans that are rational and convenient.

Visitors to Indianapolis are often appalled at the lack of recycling containers downtown. Young people who have been drilled about recycling are also aghast that we don't have a true, citywide recycling program.

Imagine the day when we can shut down Covanta's enormous, frequently polluting incinerator on the south side for good-because the recycling efforts finally worked and we could find energy to heat city steam more inexpensively.

Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a local computer analysis firm.
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