Where to recycle now
On August 23, 2018
A couple times a week, Missy VanWinkle drives 25 minutes to Indianapolis to drop off her recycling.
The choice was one she had to make after the Johnson County Recycling District closed all six of its recycling drop-off sites last month due to a significant increase in costs and illegal dumping.
VanWinkle is passionate about recycling, but she doesn't think she should have to drive to another county to do something that's good for the environment, she said.
Unfortunately, she does. So does every other Johnson County resident whose trash service provider doesn't offer recycling services, as well as those who would rather not pay for it.
Since closing the free recycling sites around the county last month, the county recycling district has received calls from residents asking what their options are. The short answer is: they don't know yet.
The recycling district is looking for a solution, but three weeks isn't enough time to come up with one, executive director Jessie Biggerman said.
"There is no quick fix to this problem, as things will get worse for the industry before it gets better," she said.
Biggerman was at a waste management conference this week in Nashville, Tenn., trying to find answers to problems recycling districts all over the country are facing.
The industry is changing. China, which was a major buyer of recyclables, has handed down several restrictions on what the country will and will not accept from the United States.
"China wants to become completely independent. So back in March, they decreased the percentage of contaminants allowed in the recycling that's imported. Now, they have basically banned import of all recyclables," said Terry Guerin, who serves on the board of the National Waste and Recycling Association and chairs the state board.
"That's really wreaking havoc on the market here in the United States. At first, the east and west coasts were impacted. But it's like a domino effect, and it's finally hitting the Midwest."
With fewer buyers, the value of recyclables has gone down, which has significantly increased the cost of collecting them.
Illegal dumping is another reason for the sudden change. Residents dumping trash in local recycling bins was the reason at least one site in Johnson County had to close.
"What people need to understand is that much of what they were disposing of wasn't recyclable, and education and understanding is going to be the key component in being able to bring sustainable recycling back to Johnson County," Biggerman said.
"This is not just a collection problem. Many people think if something goes to a bin, someone will figure out how to recycle it. That is not the case, and it just contaminates whatever good material may be in the bin. The chances are greater of all of that material ending up in the landfill."
Even though they collected more than 1,400 tons of recycling last year, it wasn't feasible or responsible to continue operating the sites, she said previously. In Johnson County, the cost to ship recycling would have more than doubled - averaging $174 per ton - had they signed a new contract.
For now, Biggerman said the recycling district is telling residents to contact their trash service provider to see if they are willing to add a subscription-based recycling route, especially in areas with a lot of homes.
But prices for curbside recycling are rising, too. Republic Services, which some communities in Johnson County use, recently raised its annual rate to $99 from $48.
Guerin, who is also the governmental affairs representative for Best Way Disposal, another major trash service provider in central Indiana, said on-the-ground management at the South Side Landfill, which services Johnson County, reported they are seeing an increase in curbside recycling subscriptions. The majority of requests received in the past month have come out of Johnson County, he said. They are not seeing an increase in garbage though.
Best Way serves landfills in Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan, and Guerin represents all of them. So far, Johnson County is the only county he is aware of that has done away with its free drop-off recycling service completely. But he certainly understands why they did it, he said.
"The true problem at work here is contamination," Guerin said. "I can tell you that individuals in your area ... let's just say we're going to have to do a much better job at educating them."
In fact, Johnson County's move is being talked about nationally, he said. He was recently at a board meeting in Washington D.C., when someone shared with him a news article about the county ending recycling services. The board included that article in a newsletter that was distributed to waste and recycling state associations around the country, he said.
Johnson County may have been the first to make this move, but it certainly won't be the last, he said.
"We'll work our way through this, but it's going to take several years probably," Guerin said.
VanWinkle, a Franklin resident, knows that Indianapolis taxpayers are funding her recycling habit, since the drop-off site she is taking her items to is in Marion County. But she doesn't know what else to do.
Her trash service provider, D&L Trash Removal, a small, locally-owned company based in Trafalgar, does not offer recycling services, she said.
She called the mayor's office. She reached out to county commissioners. She contacted other area trash service providers and the local landfill transfer site. But she still doesn't have an acceptable answer, she said.
A booth operator at Franklin's Transfer Station, which feeds into the South Side Landfill in Indianapolis, said he has received several calls about it in the past couple of weeks.
"I don't know what to tell them. The only recycling facilities I know of are up in Indianapolis," said Ralph Skaggs, scale master.
And that must be what they're doing, he said, because the transfer site has not received an increase in trash. They are still averaging about 300 tons a day.
VanWinkle, who spent the past couple of weeks playing phone tag, eventually ended up right back where she started: the Johnson County Recycling District. They told her they are considering opening a manned site, but were vague about when that might happen or where it might be located.
VanWinkle lives about a mile west of the Shelbyville line in Franklin. Up until July 31, she would drive 10 minutes to the site in downtown Franklin to drop off her recycling, she said.
"It's frustrating. I've been recycling forever. For three years, I drove it into town," she said.
She refuses to stop, she said. So for now, she will continue to haul several bins of recycling to a parking lot in Franklin Township - near the intersection of Franklin and Southport roads - a couple times a week. It is the closest site she could find, she said.