Measuring Up Louisville's Recycling Program

by kespeland on September 2, 2008

Listen to the story here.

According to which ruler you use, Louisville’s recycling program is either flourishing, or lagging. Some rulers measures diversion rates—the amount of trash kept out of landfills and recycled. Some measure the amount of materials recycled. By the latter measure, Louisvillians fall short of the 25% goal. We diverted only 22 percent of the millions of tons of waste we produced in 2006. And that amount has not improved much over the past several years. City environmental coordinator Cass Harris says that by another ruler—the state’s—we’re exceeding our 25 percent diversion goal. That’s because it counts more items.Baled plastics at the SP Metro Recycling Facility.

“If you go by the state’s calculation, yes we certainly exceed that, by probably 10% or more. If you do a general diversion calculation, that includes yard waste and materials that businesses across the community are diverting, then our community-wide diversion rate has hovered around the 45% mark.”

The way cities and states measure the success of their recycling programs varies wildly. The Environmental Protection Agency does offer guidelines for standardizing those measurements. It says more consistent measurement would make comparing programs fairer. And it would help program managers make more informed decisions about recycling services. One indicator of success might be participation rates. But Harris says the city only has anecdotal data.

“Participation tends to be higher in the urban service district, because it is provided through the fee, the urban service district fee, that those residents pay.”

Harris estimates it’s about a 50% participation rate. Industrial Disposal services holds the contract for picking up curbside recycling in the urban service district. They track the number of recycling containers set out on every route. But a spokesperson refused to divulge the information because he says that’s considered proprietary. By comparison, the Nashville metro area can tell you exactly what percentage of households along every route participates in recycling programs. But what about financial success? Well, Harris says recycling saves the city nearly $400,000 dollars in disposal fees for waste that would otherwise have been tossed in the landfill.

“Our metro solid waste crews would be picking up that material at curb side. They would be spending more time to pick up more material, and making more runs to the landfill to dispose of those materials and paying the disposal fee.”

Cardboard and paper, waiting to be baled.Not to mention fuel and staff costs. Still, the city doesn’t come close to breaking even—which isn’t unusual for recycling programs. The recycling program costs nearly three million dollars a year. But because the infrastructure is in place, the more Louisvillians recycle, the more cost effective the program could be—if they follow some guidelines. At a recycling sorting facility a few miles from downtown, manager Darrin Hardy points out a huge mound of cardboard and paper, waiting to be scooped up by one of the army of forklifts scurrying around.

“This will go up across a sort line, and we have a staff of men up there, men and women, that will actually sort through that manually as it’s going across in front of them, to clean it up and get it separated like it’s supposed to be.”

Workers sort and bale around 5000 tons of Louisvillians’ recycling every month. Hardy says it’s tougher than ever, because of the stream of materials coming in.

“The stream coming in is actually what we would call dirtier than what it used to be in the past, which causes the value of the material to actually be lower than what it could be.”
That’s because it takes more labor to empty out cans that haven’t been rinsed, for example. And that’s also a sign that more education is needed. People who do recycle may not know what they can toss in the bin or how to do it best. Still, Louisville metro’s solid waste division does offer printed materials and information on its web site to help educate people about recycling. And the city’s community beautification agency, Brightside, runs some programs in local schools.

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