A recycling reboot


Is recycling important to Indianapolis, or not?

This week’s Indiana Court of Appeals decision, nullifying the Ballard administration’s 2014 deal with Covanta to set up a commingled trash-recycling center, begs a question the city has been ducking for years.

Curbside recycling has been available in Indianapolis for over two decades. But unlike other communities, where recycling is an integrated part of regular waste disposal services, Indy city administrations have insisted on making recycling optional, something households could choose to do, or not, depending on whether they paid a special fee.

The unsurprising result is that fewer than 10 percent of city households have engaged in regular recycling.

The city’s message has been that recycling is a kind of lifestyle choice, a way for citizens who can afford the monthly fee to feel like they are doing their bit to save the planet. Call it boutique environmentalism.

Making recycling optional has trivialized the concept. Worse, it has reinforced the notion that environmental sustainability is a luxury, an indulgence for a certain social class that everybody else can ignore without consequence.

The city’s unwillingness to truly commit to recycling from a policymaking standpoint helps to account for why the Ballard administration was attracted to the Covanta deal. Commingling trash and recycling would have spared citizens the pesky process of having to separate items like metal, glass and paper from all their other guck. Having to think about this, er, stuff, is why the local household recycling rate is so low. At least that’s what the Ballard administration claimed.

Not having to think: This was the beauty of the Covanta deal. By allowing everyone to simply throw their trash away, in one commingled blob, the city’s recycling rate would jump to 100 percent.

Covanta would have turned some of what it collected into energy. Some of it would have made it to the commodities market. The rest would have gone the way of most American waste: into a landfill.

And there’s the rub. Depending on who you talk to, the problem with commingling is that a lot of what otherwise might be recycled, like glass, gets ground into trash, and is not recycled at all.

But then there are those who will tell you that the commodities markets for recyclables have never materialized as promised. That turning trash into profit is proving harder — and more energy intensive — than anyone expected.

Profitability, when it comes to recycling, would be sweet. It has undoubtedly lured some policymakers into thinking they could do right and make money at it — the civic equivalent of hitting the jackpot.

But profitability has never been the first principle of recycling. First and foremost, recycling is about recognizing and trying to come to terms with our almost incalculable capacity to produce waste. From last season’s iPhone to the foil around a Hershey’s kiss, we humans leave a trail, not of breadcrumbs but of junk, much of it toxic, in our collective wake. Recycling is a way of making us pause, for at least a moment, to think about this.

Is that important, or not?   


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