Lately, city boosters have gotten into the habit of reminding us that Indianapolis is a city without a lot of natural attractions. They point out that when it comes to competing for talented workers and new businesses with places like Denver or Miami, we don't have the benefit of mountains or beaches - as if we haven't noticed this ourselves.
For years the recycling situation here has been an embarrassment, if not a disgrace. Rather than taking recycling seriously, Indianapolis has chosen to treat it like a lifestyle choice.
Their point, though, is well-taken. For Indianapolis to succeed in the global economy's urban sweepstakes and be taken seriously as what people like to call a "destination," we're going to have to make the most of what we have. That means accentuating our so-called quality of life. Showing the world, in other words, that Indianapolis is a place that knows how to find enlightened solutions for everyday problems.
Problems like garbage, for example.
In August, the City-County Council is going to decide what to do about curbside recycling. For years, the recycling situation here has been an embarrassment, if not a disgrace. Rather than taking recycling seriously, Indianapolis has chosen to treat it like a lifestyle choice, giving citizens the opportunity to, in effect, subscribe to a curbside recycling service which drives by once a week to pick up paper, plastic, bottles and cans.
The result is that Indianapolis and recycling don't go together. Only about 3.5 percent of local households participate. And the city is losing money on the deal. While households pay an average of $5 a month for the service, it's currently costing the city $8.57 per month to deliver it. "We have got to overhaul the program," says Margie Smith-Simmons of the Department of Public Works. Indianapolis, she adds, is researching how other cities deal with recycling. "We need to look at what we can do," she says, "we know how important it is."
But the city's in the midst of a budget squeeze. It could be tempting for the councilors to look at the abysmal participation rates and the red ink and vote to have all of our garbage hauled off to the landfill on the Southside where most of our trash is dumped.
This would be a mistake.
In the first place, we know that recycling makes sense. It cuts pollution and conserves natural resources. It also conserves energy. Recycling one ton of material in a typical curbside recycling program can conserve at least $187 worth of electricity, petroleum, natural gas and coal - even after accounting for the costs of picking up and transporting the stuff. Recycling programs have been designed that are cost-competitive with solid waste landfilling and incineration and, what's more, recycling has been shown to support manufacturing by reducing the costs of raw materials, a point that you'd think would get the attention of business people in a state as manufacturing-based as Indiana.
Some people, particularly those associated with traditional waste hauling and disposal, may argue that it will be easier and harmless to put as much as we can in the landfill and incinerate the rest. But this approach will only compound the city's already troubling pollution problems. Decomposing paper and yard waste create gaseous emissions which add to smog and methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming. Liquids that drain from landfills are loaded with conventional and toxic pollutants. Although new landfill systems can collect this gunk, the stuff still has to be treated, which is costly, and it puts stress on the sewer system, which in our case makes a problem that's bad to begin with worse.
The more you recycle, the cheaper it gets. Other cities, including Cincinnati, Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore., and Fayetteville, Ark., have found that when they fully integrated curbside recycling into a comprehensive plan for waste disposal, they lowered costs substantially. Their per-ton recycling costs are lower than per-ton garbage collection and disposal costs. Studies suggest that if Indianapolis adopted an up-to-date recycling program, households could pay as little as $2 per month - and would likely see participation rates of close to 80 percent. In Speedway, where curbside recycling is mandatory, participation is now 75 percent.
Recycling makes sense for our economy. You want to give Hoosier manufacturing a shot in the arm? Recycling is a tremendous source of inexpensive raw materials. Materials collected for recycling have already been refined and processed so manufacturing a second time is cleaner and more efficient. Recycled paper mills (NUVO, by the way, is produced on 100 percent recycled stock) are booming and recycled aluminum drives new steel mini mills.
Indianapolis has an opportunity here. Creating a model curbside recycling program can, in the long run, improve the city's finances, our environment and help with the upgrading and diversification of our manufacturing industry. It can also send a message to the rest of the world that Indianapolis is a city capable of finding a clean and innovative solution for one of our most fundamental problems. If you want Indianapolis to be known as a city that recycles, get hold of the mayor and your city-county councilor before Aug. 1. Tell them you know this might mean adding a few bucks to your property tax or your water bill. But tell them it's worth it.