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Let’s Talk about Recycling (Plastic Bags!) In Louisville

Mixed-paper recycling at WestRock.
Mixed-paper recycling at WestRock.

Knowing what to recycle can get a touch overwhelming, but here’s a happy fact: that recycled junk mail may get a second life as a pizza box.

WFPL News is back with some clarifications on what can and cannot be recycled in Louisville, and what happens once that recycling leaves your curb.

Most everyone in the city has access to recycling. One exception is people who live in apartment buildings with more than eight units. In that case, the city requires the building to contract its own recycling.

Most of the recycling in the city is called “single stream” recycling, meaning the people who pick it up from your curb toss it all together and sort it out at the recycling center.

That may give the appearance that recycling ends up in the city dump, but Louisville recycling guru and public education supervisor Karen Maynard would like to assure people that is not the case.

Maynard takes exception to some media circulating on the Internet suggesting that recycling doesn’t serve any purpose.

“There’s a lot of documentaries, I’ve seen them, they can be kind of negative,” Maynard said. “They can scare people into thinking there is no point.”

Most of the city’s recycling ends up at WestRock Recycling center near the Louisville International Airport. Workers literally sort through the city’s recycling on a conveyor belt looking for prohibited items. On average, they move about 700 tons per day.

WestRock sorts commodities like cardboard, plastics, mixed-paper, glass and metal then compacts them into large cubes known as “bales.” The commodities are then sent to mills that process them into new materials, like pizza boxes, bottles and cardboard.


Right. Plastic bags. That’s a tricky one, but think back to the worker on the conveyor belt. Single plastic bags, dry cleaning film, Ziploc baggies etc. are discouraged because they gum up the machinery and it’s up to workers to pull them out.

But but but, you can actually recycle these thin plastic films if you bundle them together.

“We ask that they combine that into bigger clumps, bags within bags,” Maynard said.

Alternatively, Kroger accepts a wide variety of plastic packing. To keep things simple, Maynard recommends just bringing those things with you on your next shopping trip.

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 items in the recycling because WestRock doesn’t recycle them.

“Styrofoam is just one of those things we don’t have regional recycling for available at all because it’s mostly air,” Maynard said.

Certain household items like batteries, light bulbs and paint have special rules. Furniture, mattresses and other bulk items are collected three times a year. Alternatively, they  can be dropped 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.

Recycling’s Impact in Louisville.

Residential recycling in Louisville does have an impact.  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.

Still, any extra garbage kept from the Outer Loop Landfill is a good thing. Not only does it prevent waste, but it saves space. Because when that’s full, the city is going to have find somewhere else to put it, which isn't cheap.

So, what's the bottom line? It’s possible to geek out on recycling, but don’t let the considerations overwhelm you to inaction.

“The good news is our plastic is not literally being thrown in the ocean like some documentaries might lead you to believe,” Maynard said.

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

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