Can Indianapolis increase curbside recycling rates?
Every other week, Diane Crabtree of Lawrence, Ind., leaves three 18-gallon recycling containers at the curb.
Other items are composted, reused or donated, and what remains — food-stained boxes, meat scraps and used paper towels — fills only a fraction of a 96-gallon trash bin each week.
“Why not recycle?” she says. “It’s not difficult. We’re going to fill up the landfills.”
Crabtree is among a growing number of Indianapolis-area residents embracing curbside recycling, which is part of the garbage collection category on Angie’s List.
More recycling programs than ever
The number of Indianapolis curbside recyclers has tripled in five years. Carmel just launched in January its first combined curbside trash and recycling program, following in the footsteps of Indianapolis metro-area cities such as Westfield, Zionsville and Noblesville. And the city of Fishers may announce its first program this year.
But curbside recycling still has a long way to go, particularly in Indianapolis. About 11 percent, or 28,590 out of 258,000 households, pay for curbside recycling through Republic Services. The city doesn’t track recycling from other companies, but Calvin Davidson, recycling manager of Ray’s Trash Service, says they handle several thousand households in Indianapolis and declined to be more specific.
Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard says he expects the recycling participation rate to only increase over the next three years. “We’re hoping to get to 50 percent by 2015,” Ballard told Angie’s List Magazine. “That’s the goal.”
He believes the city can do that by continuing to offer 90-day free trials, where Republic drops off a recycling bin at every house in select neighborhoods along with a packet explaining the program. If homeowners don’t cancel after 90 days, they’re charged $48 a year. “Just over 50 percent of people have stayed with it,” Ballard says.
Recycling now easier for consumers
One obstacle to getting people interested is their outdated view of recycling, says John Drier, general manager of Indianapolis operations for Republic. No longer must people sort paper, plastic and glass.
Now, it all goes into one bin to be sorted at a transfer station in a process called single-stream recycling. In addition to paper, glass and cardboard, Republic and Ray’s accept plastics numbered 1 through 7. Republic also accepts plastic grocery and newspaper bags.
But Angie’s List member reports on recycling reveal customers aren’t always happy with service from Ray’s and Republic, especially when the recycling in their bins isn’t picked up. Davidson says if a customer is missed, they schedule a truck to return to pick up the recycling the next day.
“We actually try to get most of them on the same day if we’re still in the area,” Davidson says. “We all make mistakes and it’s how you resolve them in life that matters.”
Drier says Republic takes the same approach: “We do get several [missed pickups] a day, but when you look at the number of services we perform, the percentage of complaints is very small.”
Selena Herceg of Fishers is the daughter of Diane Crabtree. She was raised to recycle, but she won’t do it curbside after a bad pickup experience. “After moving, I had 60 or 70 cardboard boxes,” she says.
Her recycling contract with Republic at that time included only a small tub, so she broke down the boxes and set them by the bin.
“The trash man picked up every single one of them and threw them in the trash truck,” she says. “I ran out and said, ‘What are you doing? That’s my recycling.’ He said, ‘We only take what’s in the tub.’” She canceled her contract and now takes her recycling to free drop-off locations.
Drier points out that although their automated trucks still only take what’s in the tub, the tubs are now usually 96 gallons and you can request an additional free tub.
Tammy Stevens, recycling coordinator with the nonprofit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, says some don’t recycle because of a local “urban legend” of companies dumping recyclables into the trash. “There’s no truth to it,” she says.
“I can assure you the companies are doing it because they can make money,” Stevens says. “They’re selling those materials and they’re being reused for new manufacturing.”
Davidson says paper and plastics are sold like any other commodity and the price fluctuates based on the market and quality of materials. “If all we collected was beer cans and newspapers, I could pay you for the materials,” he says. “But you can’t get enough of them in your truck to justify driving it around.”
Free recycling isn't free
That’s why curbside pickup costs money, says Ashlee Kilpatrick, project manager with the Indianapolis Office of Sustainability, which manages the city’s green programs. The cost of trucks, labor and fuel to serve every household requires a fee, she says. Other cities might offer “free” recycling but taxpayers still pay for it. “There’s always a cost,” she says.
In Indianapolis' neighboring cities such as Carmel, Greenwood, Lawrence and Noblesville, residents pay one combined trash and recycling fee. Alexa Helm of Westfield, Ind., is an avid curbside recycler. Two years ago, the city began charging residents one combined fee for trash and curbside recycling with Ray’s.
“[Recycling] all goes into one container,” she says, adding the convenience translates into more recycling, and she doesn’t mind the $11 monthly fee. “It doesn’t bother me because we should encourage people to do it.”
Carrie Cason, spokeswoman for the city of Westfield, says she has no tonnage numbers, but anecdotal evidence indicates most of the city’s 10,000 households are recycling. “It’s rare that you see one trash can at the curb without the recycling bin,” she says.
Carmel launched its first citywide trash and recycling service in January, contracting with Republic. Sue Maki, manager of customer relations with Carmel Utilities, says the city allows residents to opt out of the trash and recycling program — and the $8.82 monthly fee — once a year, in June. At launch, 87 percent of Carmel’s more than 25,000 households were participating, Maki says.
Fishers still requires homeowners or associations to make their own arrangements for trash and recycling from Republic, Waste Management or Ray’s. Citywide service from one contractor is “in the works,” says Maura Leon- Barber, communications director for the city of Fishers.
Greenwood charges its 14,800 households $10.97 a month for combined trash and weekly recycling. Best Way Disposal holds the contract, its only residential contract in the Indy area, says Best Way Operations Manager Chris Roberts.
By contract with the city of Indianapolis, both Waste Management and Republic must offer curbside recycling to any Marion County resident and can charge up to $6.75 a month, Kilpatrick says, while trash fees are included in taxes. But residents still have the option to solicit bids from any recycling company, like Ray’s Trash.
Waste Management has a few municipal contracts in the Indy area, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow, and subcontracts its recycling to Ray’s. “It’s a pretty competitive market,” Kilpatrick says. Paying by the year typically brings the cost to about $4 a month, with month-to-month or hard-to-reach customers most likely to pay the maximum $6.75 a month, she says.
Another recycling option, “pay as you throw,” is used by Bloomington and many other cities nationwide. It charges residents based on the amount of trash they throw out but allows unlimited curbside recycling. However, Stevens, with KIB, says city leaders decided it wouldn’t work well. “Indianapolis has too many opportunities to dump trash in rivers and too many vacant spaces,” she says.
Speaking with their pocketbooks
Slow adoption of curbside recycling says more about people’s pocketbooks than their desire to do the right thing, says Gregg Keesling, president of RecycleForce, which manages electronic waste for Marion County’s ToxDrop program and accepts 15,000 pounds a month in household recyclables, such as plastics, glass and aluminum. “People don’t want to pay,” he says.
Stevens sees the same thing. KIB manages 26 drop-off recycling locations for Marion County. Every giant 40-yard steel container is emptied every day. The sites collected 6,600 tons in 2010, compared with 4,982 tons at curbside. Drop-off numbers for 2011 were not available at press time.
“The volume is unbelievable,” she says. “If they wanted to expand, they’d need to buy another truck.”
But Stevens says that although drop-off recycling is stronger right now in Indy, curbside recycling holds the best chance for exponential growth. It’s a matter of teaching people the cost is worth it.
“The drop-off program has been the solution for 25 years, but as curbside continues to roll out, we feel like drop-off recycling will diminish,” she says. “It’s just very hard to change the culture of a city.”