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Andrea Newell headshot

Indiana's First Single Bin, Energy-from-Waste System

By Andrea Newell

Covanta is making a $45M investment in a single-bin, recycling system paired with an energy-from-waste facility, the first complete solution of its kind in North America. This might not be news somewhere like San Francisco or Austin, both cities have high recycling rates and are often held up as municipal examples to follow, but Covanta is making this large investment in Indianapolis, in the middle of the Rust Belt, where the current city recycling rate is less than 10 percent.

Covanta operates or has an ownership stake in more than 40 energy-from-waste facilities in North America, Italy and China, but this is the first time it has combined a single stream recycling solution (Covanta Advanced Recycling Center) with its already existing energy-from-waste facility (Covanta Indianapolis Energy-from-Waste Facility) that has been supplying the city of Indianapolis with steam power since 1988.

Covanta's Director of Communications, James Regan, explained that Covanta is always striving for more advanced ways to dispose of waste that "are a sustainable alternative to landfilling." In addition to the commonly heard mantra, "reduce, reuse, recycle," the company adds a fourth R: "recover energy."

The city of Indianapolis tried various programs to increase its recycling rate, but to no avail, culminating in a mayoral mandate to increase the recycling rate at no cost to taxpayers. After a call for proposals, the city accepted Covanta's project idea to develop an advanced recycling center.

When the center is operational (the goal is 2016), all residents will be enrolled in a free recycling program where they put all their waste and recycling into one bin. That bin is then picked up on exactly the same pickup day as it has always been. There are no new trucks, new routes or new days. The trucks continue along nearly the same route they took before, but instead of going to the existing energy-to-waste facility, they stop first at the advanced recycling center, next door.

At the state-of-the-art recycling center, materials go through infrared scanners, magnets, and other automated sort processes to separate the recycling materials from the waste. Any remaining waste is taken next door to the energy-to-waste facility, where it goes into a high temperature boiler and is turned into steam energy that is used by the city of Indianapolis for heating and cooling. "By pulling more recyclables out of the waste, we'll actually be able to process more waste at the waste-to-energy facility and keep more waste out of landfills."

In a city where 90 percent of residents don't recycle, the city and Covanta see this as the best course of action to increase recycling and reduce waste. Any resident that wants to continue their existing recycling program (that they pay for) is welcome to do so, and there are recycling drop off sites throughout the city as well.

Despite it being a free program with no disruption and little effort on the part of residents, Regan says reaction has been mixed, with some worried about contamination. Will there be contamination in the recyclables as there always seems to be with single stream recycling? There will be some, but Regan stresses that "this is state-of-the-art, highly automated technology. It is not manual sorting, it is a series of conveyor belts that lead to magnets, that lead to ballistic separators, eddy current systems, a number of automated systems that will separate these materials and hopefully have them as clean as possible."

In this way, it's not that much different from a traditional recycling program, with many of the same issues (yogurt containers not rinsed out, newspapers that get left in the rain), but Regan believes that the process will be refined along the way, and as residents warm to the idea, more information will go out on how residents can help the process on their end, for one, rinsing out their recyclables. Also, just because there is only one bin doesn't mean residents should put hazardous waste items in it. No paint, cleaning solutions or items containing mercury are allowed. The recycling center is expected to recover up to 90 percent of paper, cardboard, plastics and metals, with the hope that it will be able to process glass and organic material in time.

"We've confirmed a market for all of these recyclables with downstream market vendors and the facility is designed to meet or exceed industry standards when it comes to the quality of the materials. We're very confident in the process, we've seen it work because it's modeled after a facility in Cypress, which also didn't have a recycling infrastructure."

Regan says that this model is especially effective in cities like Indianapolis that don't have a solid recycling participant rate, because the process will net more recyclables for sale after processing. In a city like San Francisco or Austin, which already has a recycling infrastructure, a system like this wouldn't make much sense.

The project will create 70 construction jobs during that phase and 60 long-term, skilled, green jobs, as in fewer manual sorters (there will be a few for quality control purposes) and more engineers, mechanics and operators to oversee the automated process.

"The city is looking at our project as one piece of the pie, albeit a large one, of the recycling plan. We're hopeful that people will see the value that this project will bring, hopeful that they will grow to like it and understand it more...We think it's really exciting and I know the city does, as well," Regan says.

The recycling center is predicted to immediately increase recycling rates up to five times, with the goal of attaining a world-class recycling rate of over 50 percent. It will also eliminate annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 40,000 cars off the road.

America, Regan explained, in general is behind the rest of the world in terms of waste management. Recycling rates vary widely around the country. The U.S. puts 250 million tons of waste in landfills every year, which is way too much in his opinion. One of the easiest ways to eliminate greenhouse gases is to stop landfilling.

"Hopefully facilities like this advanced recycling center will advance recycling rates and move us forward."

image credit: Rebecca Zelber, N.H. Sea Grant via Flickr creative commons

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell