Coalition fights Ballard plan to shake up curbside recycling

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Recycling for Indianapolis households could mean throwing everything in one curbside bin, under a proposal soon to be announced by Mayor Greg Ballard and incinerator operator Covanta.

Covanta is proposing to build a $40 million "material recovery facility" that would handle all the city's waste—garbage and recyclables alike. As part of a new contract with the city, residents would be encouraged to throw all their waste into one bin. While households could continue contracting for traditional curbside recycling, it wouldn't be the city's main means of recycling.

Ballard’s office says the Covanta plan will dramatically boost recycling at no cost to residents, but commodity industry leaders say there are hidden impacts to their businesses and the economy. They've asked Ballard to hit the pause button on the deal and consider alternatives.

“There are new resources available that can very likely provide a tax-neutral solution that’s a much more effective solution,” said Carey Hamilton, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition.

Ballard spokesman Marc Lotter confirmed that the mayor is considering a new program.

“What we’re talking about here has the potential to greatly increase the amount of recycling in the city,” Lotter said. “They want to continue doing what we’re doing, which has gotten us a whole whopping 10 percent of participation in 40 years of effort.”

Currently, households can pay a separate fee for curbside recycling, or they can haul the stuff themselves to free drop-off points. Historically, Indianapolis hasn’t recycled much, but total tonnage appears to be increasing. In 2009, the city generated 7,279 tons of recyclables from curbside and free bins. Currently, it's about 13,000 tons.

Covanta says it can boost total tonnage by five times, but Hamilton thinks the city could do even better under a traditional program with free curbside bins. The coalition hasn't proposed a specific program, but Hamilton said she encouraged the Ballard administration to take advantage of funding from state and private-sector sources.

The coalition sent Ballard a letter in April asking him to put Covanta’s proposal on hold for six months and consider alternatives. More recently, on June 2, the CEO of Pratt Industries Inc., Brian McPheely, weighed in with his own letter.

Commodity industries oppose Covanta’s proposal because they say mixing garbage with recyclables lowers the amount of waste that can be recycled, as well as the quality of that material, which is vital to their businesses.

“One of the most critical issues facing the 100 percent recycled paper industry is the availability of clean, economically viable fiber for domestic producers,” McPheely said in his letter.

Pratt, based in Conyers, Ga., is building a $260 million, 250,000 square-foot paper recycling plant next to its cardboard box plant in Valparaiso, which employs almost 350 people, McPheely said in the letter, which he wrote on behalf of his company and the national Paper Recycling Coalition.

Indiana glass recyclers are also alarmed because Covanta’s system would not recover any glass, said Hamilton, who was briefed on the Covanta proposal.

Covanta currently receives at its south-side incinerator any city waste that isn’t recycled, under a 10-year contract signed in 2008. Covanta sells energy from the incinerator to Citizens to help power the downtown steam loop.

The new “material recovery facility,” or MRF,  would pluck out 80 percent to 90 percent of paper, plastics, cardboard and metal, Covanta spokesman James Regan said. It would not recover glass, but the company, based in Morristown, N.J., could recycle glass in the future, he said.

Despite industry objections, Regan said, “We’ve met with a number of recycling partners, and all have confirmed a market for recycling materials,” he said.

The recycling industry refers to the type of system that Covanta is proposing as a “dirty” MRF. Covanta calls it “advanced recycling.”

Regan said the MRF relies on new sensor-based technology to recover recyclables, rather than people picking over trash. Covanta has not built such a system elsewhere in the United States, he said.

While Covanta is promising to dramatically increase recycling, the recycling coalition thinks Indianapolis can do even better, Hamilton said. In its letter to the mayor, the coalition alleges that Covanta’s best-possible recycling rate would be 24 percent.

The coalition letter also raised the specter that existing recycling programs at Lucas Oil Stadium, schools and offices would suffer “once residents are told recyclables should be combined with trash.”

Regan said households would continue to have the option to pay a separate fee to Republic Services for traditional recycling.

Regan said Covanta hopes to make an announcement about its proposal in the next week or so. Lotter confirmed that a contract is being finalized through the Department of Public Works.

That has City-County Council Vice President John Barth alarmed. He plans to have the council’s public policy committee take up a discussion about recycling.

“We need to have a thoughtful public process,” he said.

With Covanta’s contract ending in 2018, he said, “We have a leveraged opportunity to negotiate the best possible deal for the city.”

The Covanta deal would not require the council's approval.

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