Recycling procedure has changed but result hasn't
Courier-Journal Louisville, KY

April 10, 2023

Recycling procedure has changed but result hasn't

Procedure has changed but results haven't, city says

By James Bruggers

A change in how Louisville recycles has some residents wondering if it all isn't just ending up in the dump.

It's not, officials insist

But those officials -- who've heard hundreds of complaints since the new system was put in place in January -- acknowledge there may be some confusion among people who for years have separated paper from plastic, glass, metal cans and aluminum, and seen it carted off in trucks with different sections for the varied materials.

Since January, city solid-waste crews have been doing the pickups, throwing recyclables together in the back of regular garbage trucks -- with the separation done elsewhere.

That's the confusing part.

"Every time I see the workers pick up my recycling, I cringe, certain it is wasted effort on my part and theirs," resident James Busch said, adding that he is especially concerned when rain appears to turn paper and other materials in the bins into an inseparable "wet glob."

"We need to see the YouTube video of how it's done."

There will be no video, or even photographs of the Riverside Recycling site in New Albany, Ind., where the separation is now handled. General manager Trey Gingles said he doesn't want the competition to see how he does it.

But Gingles took a reporter on a tour and -- sure enough -- a combination of machines and people was separating paper from plastic, glass from aluminum and metal cans. Stacked bales of each material, about the size of a small refrigerator, were the result.

All but about 2 percent of what comes in gets recycled, Gingles said. That 2 percent goes to a landfill, which costs Riverside money, so, he noted, there's "great economic pressure to get every pound (of recyclables) out of this system."

"We throw away very little."

$1.8 million savings

The Louisville Metro Solid Waste Division began curbside collection in the old city limits in January, taking over from a private contractor. Outside the old limits, people still must make arrangements with private companies or take recyclables to drop-off locations, unless their small city offers a program.

Louisville expects to save about $1.8 million a year by using its own trucks and crews to collect from about 104,000 households eligible for curbside recycling, Public Works director Ted Pullen said.

He said his agency has developed more efficient pickup routes, which freed more trucks and workers to do the recycling runs.

But the transition has hit some bumps, namely missed pickups and difficulties getting recycling signs to stay on the garbage trucks. City records show 468 complaints in January, 511 in February, and 296 through March, said Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Abramson.

That compares with about 68 a week, or about 270 a month, before the change, Pullen said.

But some of the complaints occurred when the city was covered in ice and streets were blocked by fallen tree branches, preventing crews from reaching some streets, he said. Others were made by people who may have forgotten their pickup day, he added.

Now that city crews are settling into their new routes, he said, the complaint rate is approaching what it was with the previous private contractor

How it's done

At Riverside, the recycling trucks empty their loads onto a pile of debris 25 feet high. A front-end loader scoops the material into a "drum feeder" that uses a paddle-wheel-like device to spread it onto a conveyor belt.

At the top of the belt, seven people pluck out cardboard and toss it into boxes, and remove anything else that could gum up the works, such as wire. The belt then feeds the material onto a series of rotating screens of different shapes and sizes.

Newspaper pages and other paper fluff up and over the top into their own collection area. Farther down the line, the machine does something similar to light-weight aluminum. Tin and other metals are pulled out by a magnet, and glass and plastic drop onto other belts. Other workers separate two types of plastic by hand.

It works because each material has different physical properties, Gingles said.

He acknowledged that rain-soaked recyclables slow the process, but he insisted his machines and workers can handle it.

And because residents don't have to sort the paper from the plastic and other recyclables, he expects the city will likely increase the total volume it recycles.

The plant employs about 40 people, he said. The city recently selected Riverside through bidding and is working through final details of a five-year contract, Richardson said. Until that contract is signed, the city is on a daily contract that costs the city $30 per ton, she said.

"Once the contract kicks in, the price drops to $22.50 per ton," she said.

And when markets improve for recycled materials, Pullen said, the city will recover some of its costs, adding that the pricing system adjusts with the market. Pullen said he wants to assure residents that what they put in their bins gets recycled. Once a year, he said, Riverside is required to report how much it accepts and how much is recycled.

Galen White, of Louisville, has been among the skeptics. He said he is less concerned after hearing from a reporter how the system works. But he said the change was a shock.

"It was a terrible appearance -- just throwing it in a garbage truck," he said. "I was concerned they had decided to put it in the landfill until times got better."

Reporter James Bruggers can be reached at (502) 582-4645.


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