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Something In The Air

By Eleanor Price
11 Nov 2014
Colourful row of recycling plastic dustbins by Dave Goodman (via Flickr – CC BY 2.0)

It must be something in the air.

Indiana is not known for its air quality or green policies, and the state’s capital is no exception. Despite a bill passed this year to increase Indiana’s recycling to fifty percent, the current Indianapolis recycling proposal doesn’t look like it will conform to this new goal.

Covanta, which has managed Indianapolis’s waste since 1988 with a combination of recycling and incineration, now asks that instead of clean recycling programs, the people of Indianapolis throw away all their recyclables to be sorted by the company. This plan is both counterproductive and even more unkind to the environment than the current incineration already is.

Indeed, incinerating waste isn’t quite the streamlined technique that Covanta would have one believe. The system isn’t entirely without benefits; for example, the Covanta plant in Indianapolis produces enough steam to power half of downtown. But long-term, the risks outweigh the gains. Burning tons upon tons of garbage can release harmful gases, and the concentrated ash that results from the process, though smaller than average landfill waste, is toxic and can leak into water supplies. Also, though the recyclables are supposed to be sorted away from the waste, this doesn’t always work for paper, especially if the waste is burned first and only the metal is retrieved after. Indiana is rated among the worst in the nation in air quality, and the chemical melting pot that results from incinerating metals and plastics only adds to the pollution.

Caring for the environment should not be an economic issue: if we poison the world we live in, the economy will become a moot point anyway. That being said, the augmentation of incineration isn’t a good extended economic plan. Having curbside paper recycling adds jobs to the Indianapolis area, from people who pick up the recycling to people who work at the recycling plant. It is by no means a perfect solution: the curbside service charges for their service, which could be difficult for some households. It is, however, a better solution than the Covanta sorting plan, which would result in a smaller percentage of recycled materials than traditional paper recycling. Both these totals are already lower than the newly mandated goal of fifty percent.

Not only is this issue a study of environmental concerns. It’s also an issue of transparency. The citizens of Indianapolis should be kept in the loop as the decision-making process continues, but they have not been included from the beginning. Both Covanta and the Department of Public Works have not made all terms of agreement clear to the public.

No waste management system is perfect, and no choice between recycling systems will be flawless. However, protecting natural resources that without which we couldn’t survive should come before fairly frivolous financial machinations.

Eleanor is a current musicology PhD student at the Eastman School of Music and a former Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute for Ethics, where she worked to edit the Prindle Post and coproduce the Examining Ethics podcast. She graduated from DePauw University in 2017 as an Honor Scholar with a dual degree in Flute Performance and English Literature.
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