Oldham’s recyclables head over the river, down a conveyor


By John Foster

Maybe you stack your recyclables at the curb to be whisked away by Industrial Disposal. Maybe you drive those bottles and boxes to the Oldham County Recycling Center never to be seen or thought of again, but it goes somewhere – New Albany, Ind., just a block off the road to Horseshoe Casino.

It’s in one of those mysterious areas in the shadow of the city, an area dominated by smoke stacks, large metal buildings and chain link fences.

At Riverside Recycling, forklifts shove massive piles of bottles and cans as milk jugs pop like packing bubbles under the machine. Copies of The Oldham Era blend with papers from throughout the region and boxes of Lucky Charms. They’ll be baled together and stacked larger than a mobile home for shipments to their new life as another cereal box, newspaper or insulation.

Containers from Oldham County are pulled onto a conveyor, where a few employees pull out wires, grocery bags, window blinds — anything not recyclable that could jam the machine. They toss out a small pile of waste next to a 20-foot stack of paper looking soft enough to jump into, but possibly big enough to drown in.

There’s not much waste, only about 2 percent of total volume, General Manager Trey Gingles said.

Glass bottles fall through a series of screens while paper floats on top. A magnet pulls out tin cans while a specialized electromagnet throws aluminum cans into a separate bin where they’ll be crushed to the thickness of a razor blade.

The aluminum, glass and much of the plastic will go on to future lives as liquid containers. Tin cans go on to life as auto parts or appliances, among other things. Milk jugs and detergent bottles become drainpipes.

All told, about 5,000 to 10,000 tons of recycling goes through the center in a month, Gingles said.

Surprisingly, Gingles isn’t sure recycling is that great for the environment.

“I’m sure it’s not environmentally negative,” he said.

He thinks his job involves being a good steward of natural resources, but ultimately, it’s a business.

“We have to make money to keep the lights on,” he said.

His truck must not be the one in the parking lot with the Greenpeace sticker.

He’s skeptical that landfill space is at a premium, and collecting, sorting, shredding does take a lot of energy — both the kind that comes from humans and the kind that comes from fossils.

But on the other hand, when someone in Oldham County drinks a can of Diet Coke and recycles it, that metal is melted to create a new can – sometimes within a week. Only it’s more likely to contain beer when the new can hits a store’s shelf – Anheuser-Busch is a major aluminum buyer from Riverside. That same metal will be used repeatedly, without slicing the earth to mine more ore.

“It’s recyclable forever,” he said.

That efficiency means aluminum is more environmentally beneficial to recycle, as well as more profitable for Riverside.

Glass is a less efficient material to recycle. They about break even on it, Gingles said. Margins across the board are thin, though. The slow economy means less manufacturing, which means less demand, which means lower prices for recycled goods.

Scientists at the Natural Resources Defense Council disagree with Gingles’ assessment of recycling. According to the report “Too good to throw away,” recycling saves energy and natural resources that far outweigh the energy required to sort and haul it. For every ton of aluminum, 37.2 barrels of oil are saved. For glass, it’s about .9 barrels. Paper saves 2.34 to 3.97 barrels, with newsprint being the most efficient, according to the report.

On top of the energy savings is a lesser need for virgin resources like lumber, petroleum and ore. And yes, recycling lessens the amount of material in landfills, according to the report.

As long Oldham County and Louisville residents keep doing the thing some consider really good for the environment, Gingles will be in a job, whether he agrees wholeheartedly or not. Even in this economic climate, Riverside Recycling is turning a profit.

“If we’re making money now, we’re gonna be OK,” he said.

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com

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