(Editor's note: In its pursuit to open a recycling facility in Indianapolis, Covanta submitted a solid waste permit application to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The application process requires a public commenting period, which is now open until September 10. Ask Renee's Renee Sweany posted information about the comment period on her blog on IndianaLivingGreen.com on August 24.)
Shortly after the Covanta: COMMENTS OPEN piece came out, I received an email from a representative of Covanta accompanied by a letter that will be sent to "certain stakeholders on Covanta's proposed Advanced Recycling Center."
Most of the letter was focused on debunking everything Indiana Recycling Coalition has to say about the new Advanced Recycling Center. There was one statement that seemed to make the most sense in their argument.
"Covanta would not invest $45 million into building the Advanced Recycling Center if the intention was to just burn the material. That simply doesn't make any business sense. The company has every incentive to ensure the recyclable materials that are recovered meet the needs of valued manufacturing customers. And those remaining materials not currently able to be recycled will generate renewable steam energy through the Covanta Energy-from-Waste facility."
I do believe that they wouldn't build a $45 million facility to pretend like they are recycling. However, I also know that they make money from that renewable steam. And I believe that if they can't get the price they want out of a load of recyclable material, they will burn it. (Opinion, not fact.)
The letter goes on to say:
"We [Covanta] believe the IRC has been misled by a few companies... Some of the very same paper companies that have publically opposed Covanta's plan to increase recycling in Indiana have purchased and accepted recycled fiber from a similar facility in Montgomery, Alabama."
Covanta suggested that I contact the CEO of the company that owns Montgomery, Alabama's one-bin recycling facility, so I did. Apparently I'm the first person from Indianapolis (other than Covanta) to reach out and ask questions about their setup.
Infinitus Energy is the Florida-based designer, builder and operator of Montgomery's waste recovesry facility. I had a lengthy chat with Kyle Mowitz, the CEO of Infinitus, who provided me with some eye-opening information.
First of all, Montgomery's facility is able to recycle just over 60 percent of the full waste stream. That means 60 percent of Montgomery's garbage is being recovered as recyclable, not that 60 percent of the recyclables are being recycled. In that case, 100 percent of the recovered recyclables are being recycled. Mowitz said that pretty much all of the recyclables are staying within the Montgomery region except for mixed paper, which is currently going to China.
According to Mowitz, plastic film is one of the more challenging materials for which to find a buyer mostly based on price.
Materials that can't be recycled go to a landfill. Infinitus does not have financial gain on materials that cannot be recycled. Mowitz admitted Infinitus has sold materials to recyclers that have spoken out against mixed stream recycling.
So, they're doing it! Based on my conversation, the program in Montgomery seems like a successful program considering it's relatively young and still working out the kinks.
Mowitz did share his displeasure with the knowledge that his facility in Montgomery has been used as an example in creating the case for a one-bin recycling facility in Indianapolis. While he did not want to be negative toward Covanta, Mowitz said, "It's not an accurate reflection or comparison" because it is a completely different format, technology, system and overall operation. He believes the City of Indianapolis and Covanta have chosen a technology that's never been used or proven on mixed waste. And Mowitz would be the first to say that his mixed waste recovery facility is "very hard to operate and even tougher to create a great product."
Mowitz said he has met with Covanta and actually reviewed the system proposed for Indianapolis. He said he doesn't have confidence that it can achieve what they think it's going to achieve. He said he tried to offer some insight, but believes it fell on deaf ears. (Covanta and Infinitus are competitors in the waste management/recovery industry; however, Mowitz claimed that his only motivation for coming out saying that the two facilities should not be compared is that if the Covanta facility is not successful, it could reflect poorly on his.)
When asked if there are consequences for Covanta if the company does not achieve its goals, two concepts were offered — Covanta jeopardizes its $45 million investment and the city can walk away from the deal.
The initial recovery goal is 18 percent of the waste stream. Covanta officials pointed out that over 50 percent of Indy's waste is made up of non-recyclables. Plus, the contract uses the term "acceptable waste" — it cannot be too contaminated to be recycled. (Things like rain and snow can totally affect the quality of a load of recyclables.)
When I asked Mowitz if he thought a one-bin system is the right choice for Indianapolis, he said yes, which is not exactly what I wanted to hear. He said that one-bin works very well in low volume markets, which sadly describes Indianapolis.
What's wrong with us? Why do only 10 percent of Indy households think recycling is important enough to pay $6/month? Why don't our elected officials want to pursue the infrastructure to make recycling a city-provided service? Why isn't there a full proposal for single-stream recycling from Indiana Recycling Coalition and/or other stakeholders awaiting approval from the mayor or a private recycling company?
I have to admit, I kind of agree with Kyle. If Indy residents aren't willing or able to commit to recycling; if our government doesn't see recycling as a priority for budgeting or to focus energy on finding grants; if Indiana Recycling Coalition doesn't have the ability to draft a plausible single-stream recycling proposal; if Ray's or Republic aren't able to provide the service for free...then maybe a one-bin system is the best solution for our low volume city.
But rather than make that decision behind closed doors with the company that burns our trash, let's have a public discussion about it. Rather than take the first offer, from the company that has fined our city for not producing enough trash, let's find the best solution for long-term recycling in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, it may be too late.