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Curious Louisville: What Happens To Your Recycling?

Aluminum cans recycling at WestRock.
Aluminum cans recycling at WestRock.

Over the last couple years, WFPL's Curious Louisville has received nearly a dozen questions about Louisville recycling. People want to know what happens after it leaves the curb, where it all goes, and how a 2017 Chinese policy impacts recycling in Kentucky.

Who Can Recycle in Jefferson County?

Recycling is technically available to all Louisville Metro residents. If you live inside the Urban Services District, the city’s public works department will pick it up. Even if you live outside it, the city requires all private waste haulers to offer curbside recycling. Many small cities contract with these haulers and offer their own curbside recycling programs.

The exception here is people who live in apartment buildings with more than eight units. In that case, the city requires them to contract their own recycling.

“I have a lot of residents that live in apartment complexes that might come to me and sort of complain or vent that 'my apartment complex doesn’t provide recycling, what can I do?'” said Karen Maynard, public education coordinator for the public works department. “Aside from talking to a property manager and trying to get them to provide a recycling service, we actually have drop-off locations all throughout the county.”

What Can You Recycle Here?

It’s not always straightforward, but broadly speaking you can recycle paper, plastic, glass and metal.

But no tissue, no paint cans and no ceramics. Don’t toss your used styrofoam food containers in the recycling because Louisville’s contractor does not recycle them. Also, plastic grocery bags aren't allowed because they cause problems for sorting machines at recycling centers.

Certain household items like batteries, light bulbs and paint have special rules.

Furniture, mattresses and other bulk items are collected three times a year. Or, if you don’t feel like waiting, you can drop them off free of charge at the city’s Waste Reduction center.

If you’ve got a question, check out the city’s website or its Recycle Coach app.

But Seriously, Is It Going To End Up In The Landfill Anyways?

The trucks that pick up your recycling are the same ones that pick up your trash. That can look misleading, but they are not actually mixing your recycling with your neighbor’s garbage, said Maynard with public works.

“They pretty much look the same, wherever you live you of course have a recycling day, garbage day. It’s possible it’s on the same day, but you can rest assured that the same trucks are coming through and getting the correct material,” Maynard said.

Also, the city generally saves money by offering recycling programs so it's incentivized to do the right thing.

  • First, the city pays per ton to drop off at the landfill and there is only so much space left. The city uses four landfills, but primarily it uses the Outer Loop landfill. There are a few decades left of space there, but once that’s gone the city is going to have a difficult time finding more space in Louisville. That means it’s going to have to ship it elsewhere and that’s going to be expensive.
  • Second, recycling centers make money by selling the commodities they sort. WestRock shares a piece of those profits with waste haulers like the city’s public works department. When prices are high, it saves taxpayers money. But when prices are low, it can cost the city money to recycle.

How Much Does The City Recycle?

In 2015, the city diverted 49 percent of its entire waste stream away from landfills, but residential makes up the smallest piece of that, according to a 2018 solid waste study.

Louisville residents diverted about 66,000 tons of waste from a landfill. That sounds pretty good until you consider that 82 percent of all of residential waste did end up in a landfill.

There are a few possible reasons for that. The report notes Louisville's recycling program is mostly voluntary and there are few incentives. It also says Louisville is lacking standardized services across the city.

That causes inefficiencies like overlapping waste haulers and can lead to higher customer costs.

“And that means we have four or five businesses in some neighborhoods driving up and down with their big heavy trucks at least once a week for trash and once a week for compost and once a week for recycling,” said Sarah Lynn Cunningham, Metro Waste Management Advisory Committee member.

But the city has created a really successful wet/dry recycling program for Louisville’s Central Business District. The program increased recycling from 11 percent to 80 percent within a year, said Pete Flood, compliance and enforcement manager with the public works department.

“Whereas a lot of recyclables used to go into the garbage and we never got a chance to process it, now we have a chance to process everything, which has driven the recycling recovery rate up tremendously,” Flood said.

Louisville’s latest goal is to achieve 90 percent participation in a recycling program and 90 percent diversion from a landfill by 2042.

Where Does Our Recycling Go?

The majority of Louisville's recycling moves through WestRock Recycling center near Louisville International Airport. The trucks roll through 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We pushed over 15,000 tons through this plant [in August],” said Mike Laverty, general manager.

On average, they move about 700 tons per day, he said. Residential recycling actually makes up the smallest piece of what WestRock handles every month. It’s also messier, and needs more sorting than commercial recycling.

Take for example, plastic grocery bags, which can often end up in residential recycling.

“Well it’s listed on the website, if you look at the city website, it’s not allowed, prohibited. And the reason being is we have to rip those bags open and get that material out and if we don’t get that bag out and pull it out of there it’ll wrap around all our shafts and then we have to shut the line down and we have to cut that plastic back out,” Laverty said.

WestRock sorts the recycling into different commodities including cardboard, plastics, mixed-paper, glass and metal. It then compacts them into large cubes known as “bales.” Those commodities are sent to mills that process them into new materials, like cereal boxes, bottles and cardboard.

WestRock makes money by selling those commodities and it shares a piece of those profits with waste haulers like the city’s public works department.

When prices are high, it saves taxpayers money. But when prices are low, it costs the city money to recycle. And that’s where China comes in.

What’s The Deal With China And How Does That Impact Louisville?

In 2017, China passed the National Sword policy that banned certain types of waste “to protect China's environmental interests and people's health,” according to the World Trade Organization.

“They won’t take mixed paper, they won’t take mixed plastics, they don’t want mixed anything,” Laverty said. “A year ago, mixed paper was worth $70 to $80 a ton. Today it’s worth zero. Zero. I’m giving it away.”

As a result, WestRock was sitting on 800 tons of mixed paper in September, but still has the overhead costs of sorting it from the rest of city’s recycling.

In time though, that could change. Laverty said it’s normal for markets to move up and down.

Recycled plastics, too, are worth less than they used to be.

“The experts tell us the plastics industry will never be a strong market again. It’s a petroleum product. the raw virgin material, there’s an abundance of it,” Laverty said.

Our Disposable Lifestyle

For this story, I spoke with several people whose job it is to think about the things we throw away. All of them said we need to re-think our disposable lifestyles.

Here’s Harold Adams, spokesman at the Public Works Department:

“Recycling is actually the third in order of the three R’s. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”

Here’s Pete Flood again with the city’s Public Works Department:

“Out there are people who lived through the old depression eras. You didn’t waste anything, everything was used down to the little dish of leftovers, it got used. I think people kind of got spoiled and everything became a disposable item and I think a lot of people have started to see that’s not the best way to go. And it’s actually cheaper.” Flood said.

Here’s Cunningham, the Metro Waste Management Advisory Committee member and executive director of Louisville Climate Action Network:

“I believe that everybody in Louisville knows that our environment has some significant threats. I think everybody carries around a little despair over those threats to public health and to future generations," said Cunningham. "And I believe that people who recycle feel like every day they are doing something to help that problem and help the environment for future generations.”
Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Listen to this story in the player above and subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts. You can ask your own Curious Louisville question here or in the form below. 

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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