The Farmers Market may be the only place in town on Saturday mornings that is busier than the Recycling Center on South Walnut Street.
But while the environmentally conscious hordes that inundate the center with glass, plastic, cardboard and other materials believe their meticulously sorted household refuse will be remanufactured into new products, there is no guarantee that they will.
First in a series
Indeed, those who run the place -- the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District -- can't assure recyclers that their milk jugs, wine bottles or Bloomingfoods deli containers won't be dumped in a landfill. Some citizens who have asked questions worry that is exactly what is happening. And they don't like it.
"If it's being landfilled, then the city should know that and be communicating that to the residents and businesses so that we are not wasting our time separating trash for no reason," one concerned citizen familiar with the situation said in an e-mail to the Alternative.
The waste district has a contract with Hoosier Disposal & Recycling to process the recyclables collected from Monroe County citizens. The contract does not prevent Hoosier from landfilling the recyclable materials it collects, nor does it require Hoosier to document where it sends the materials.
Toward the end of a July 22 interview, waste district Operations Manager Scott Morgan, who oversees the recycling program, addressed the issue multiple times with variations on the same theme.
"We have inquired on numerous occasions," he said. "They have given us some verbal names of some of the companies they use for their recycling efforts."
The Monroe waste district is a tax-supported, government agency that collects recyclables at five locations in Monroe County, including the Recycling Center and collection centers in Ellettsville and three other rural locations.
Ultimate responsibility for district policy and operations lies with a board of directors composed of elected officials from Monroe County, the City of Bloomington and Ellettsville. Day-to-day operations are carried out by professional staff.
"If it's being landfilled, then the city should know that and be communicating that to the residents and businesses."
Monroe County government dominates the seven-member board with four seats -- all three County Commissioners and a representative from the County Council. The mayor of Bloomington and representatives from the Bloomington City Council and Ellettsville Town Board also sit on the district board.
In addition to collecting paper and cardboard, glass, metals and plastic at the five drop-off sites, the district collects recyclable materials from about 60 businesses through a fee-based program called the Green Business Network.
According to the district's Web site, businesses pay anywhere from $200 to $1,600 a year to have the Green Business Network (GBN) pick up their recyclables.
Any Monroe County resident or business can use the drop-off sites and utilize district programs like the GBN.
Aside from district programs, the City of Bloomington's curbside pick-up is the community's only other government-funded recyclables program. The city also has a contract with Hoosier that does not require the materials be recycled or Hoosier to report where the materials go.
From its inception in 1990 until 2004, the waste district had responsibility for processing and selling the recyclables collected at its sites.
Larry Barker, district director for the past nine months, explained that recyclable materials are commodities. They are generally sold to brokers, who resell them for whatever the market will bear. The prices for commodities vary from day to day.
"You may have some broker today paying top dollar for paper," he said, "whereas previously you were sending it to someone else."
On Aug. 30, 2004, the district board of directors voted to privatize the recyclables program, ceding all responsibility for it to Hoosier. According to minutes from the meeting, the vote was 5-2.
County Commissioners Joyce Poling and Herb Kilmer and County Councilman Jeff Ellington, all Republicans, and Mayor Mark Kruzan and Ellettsville Town Board member Pat Stoffers, both Democrats, voted to privatize recycling.
County Commissioner Iris Kiesling and City Councilman Steve Volan, Democrats, cast the "no" votes. Neither cited disposition of the materials as a concern, according to the minutes.
MCSWMD and Hoosier Disposal
City of Bloomington and Hoosier Disposal
The 2004 "Recyclables Agreement" between Hoosier and the waste district runs three years, with two one-year renewals, unless one side notifies the other in writing 60 days prior to the renewal date.
Barker said the agreement is still in place. It is due for renewal in August.
The Recyclables Agreement devotes three paragraphs to contractual provisions for processing "fiber," defined as "cardboard, mixed office paper, magazines and newspaper."
Morgan noted that fiber is traditionally the most profitable recyclable commodity.
"That's where the money per ton traditionally is," he said.
The district paid Hoosier $54 a ton to "manage and process fiber materials" during the first year. The contract has built-in annual price increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.
"Hoosier will process fiber material at its Transfer Facility and send it to an appropriate end user selected by Hoosier," the contract says. "Appropriate" is not defined.
District officials believe Hoosier is sending paper goods to "appropriate" end users, as called for in the contract, Morgan said. They visit the company's operation from time to time and see bales of paper and cardboard.
Hoosier wouldn't go through the process of baling if it were simply landfilling the paper goods, he said. "I'm quite confident it's all being recycled through the proper channels."
The contract similarly includes detailed specifics regarding the disposition of metals. The price paid for aluminum, for example, is market-based, tied to the "average price being paid per pound" by local two salvage companies.
11:30 a.m., Sept. 4, 2008
Public Meeting Room, Monroe County Courthouse
Glass and plastics receive only cursory attention in the Hoosier contract. Each gets exactly one sentence.
"The District will pay $41 per ton for all glass material that is delivered to the Transfer Facility by Hoosier," the agreement says. "... The District will pay Hoosier $38 per ton for all properly sorted plastics that are delivered to the Transfer Facility by Hoosier."
The contract has no discussion of appropriate end users for glass and plastic.
In a section called "Reporting," the contract says, "Hoosier will provide a monthly report to the District showing the volume of each commodity type received and where it was sent."
The district has not interpreted the reporting clause to mean Hoosier must detail what it does with the recyclables.
"Hoosier does provide us with monthly reports of all the volumes that were sent to them," Morgan said. "We do not receive in return an actual written statement of where the materials go."
Another section titled "Material Change of Market Conditions" says if any changes "materially affect the economics of collecting, processing and/or marketing any of the Recyclable Materials subject to this Agreement, either Party may provide notice of that occurrence to the other Party."
If the two sides cannot reach agreement to address the market change, either can cancel the contract. Barker said neither party has ever notified the other of a material change in market conditions.
The upshot, according to Barker and Morgan, is that the district has no way of knowing whether Hoosier is recycling or landfilling the materials it processes under its contractual obligations.
"We have inquired on several occasions," Morgan said. "... They have assured us it's being recycled. We have no other knowledge, let's say that."
He added: "We have not followed a truck. That's the way you find out for sure. We have not followed a truck to see where it's actually going."
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.