Eblen: Recycling turns trash into treasure

Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, so everyone should know by now that recycling is good for the environment. But here's something you might not know: it's good for your wallet, too.

Thanks to Lexington's growing recycling program, everyone's trash is becoming everyone's treasure.

Since Lexington began citywide recycling in 1991, the city has earned taxpayers more and more money by selling recyclable material to contractors. Recycling also has saved taxpayers money by reducing landfill costs.

Recycling revenues have risen from $1.05 million in 2007 to about $2.3 million. That's a lot of green for being green, and it is a big reason the city was able to cut the garbage fee by 10 percent last year.

Recycling revenues are expected to rise to $2.6 million during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. That's mostly because, beginning June 1, Lexington residents with city pickup will no longer need to separate glass from other materials in their recycling bins thanks to new sorting equipment.

The city expects the change to lead to a 20 percent increase in the amount of materials turned in for recycling. It would be the biggest increase in recycling since 2002, when new equipment no longer required each material to be separated in bins.

Since 1997, yard waste also has been collected by the city and processed into mulch.

Still, there's room for improvement. Lexington now processes 22,000 tons of recyclable material each year. But 345,000 tons of Lexington trash goes to regional landfills in Lincoln and Franklin counties. Officials estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of that material could be recycled, which would generate both revenue and savings for the city and keep landfills from filling up so fast.

"The easier we can make it for residents to recycle, the more we'll keep out of landfills," said Steve Feese, the city's recycling manager. "And the more we can recycle, the more we streamline our overall collection system ... and lower the cost of waste disposal."

The nerve center of Lexington's recycling program is a big building on Thompson Road, just off Manchester Street across from the former Old Pepper Distillery. There you'll find manager James Carter and some of the hardest-working people in Lexington: city employees, contractor workers and a few jail trusties who sort recyclables on big conveyer belts as fast as their hands can move.

Sorters must watch closely for cables, wire and other materials that might tangle and damage the sorting equipment. "Coat hangers are our biggest nemesis," Carter said as he inspected a bin of debris pulled off the line.

Lexmark, which has one of Lexington's most aggressive corporate recycling programs, delivers truckloads of materials to the center every few weeks. The day I was there, a truckload of soft-drink bottles from Lexmark had just been dumped, filling the floor. Everyone pitched in to push them onto a sorting conveyor. Meanwhile, Bobcat loaders pushed mountains of sorted paper into contractors' waiting trucks.

Where does all of this stuff go? Glass is ground into bits — some as fine as sand — for use in landscaping and concrete aggregate. Most other materials are trucked to recycling plants in Kentucky and nearby states. Aluminum cans go to Novelis in Berea. Cardboard goes to Inland Container in Maysville. Fiberboard goes to Tennessee, newsprint to Georgia and milk jugs to Indiana.

Even the old bins used to hold residents' recycling, garbage and yard waste are recycled. Many are converted into composting bins, which are given away to residents as fast as workers can convert them.

Lexington can recycle 11 commodities: aluminum cans, newspaper, magazines, telephone books, cereal boxes and other types of fiberboard, cardboard, glass, steel cans, water and juice bottles, milk jugs, and the plastic bottles that hold detergent and similar products.

The most common item that ends up in recycling bins but can't be recycled is plastic shopping bags. Some retailers collect and recycle them, and city officials suggest you take yours to them. Better yet, shop with reusable bags, which most retailers now sell — and sometimes give away.

"Not generating waste in the first place when there are other alternatives is our ultimate goal," Feese said.