Fayette County

Lexington's chief recycler retiring after more than two decades pushing the program

Steve Feese, Director, Division of Waste Management at the  LFUCG recycling center in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 13, 2013.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Steve Feese, Director, Division of Waste Management at the LFUCG recycling center in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 13, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

In the late 1980s, when city Waste Management Division director Steve Feese came to Lexington, a few dedicated souls were taking cans, bottles and newspapers to a collection center.

Now recycling, once the passion of hard-core tree-huggers, has gone mainstream.

In the last 25 years, more than 1.5 million tons of material has been diverted from the city landfill, said Feese, who is retiring at the end of the year at the age of 53.

The whole city should be proud, he said.

Much of the diverted material, once considered garbage, has gone on to new life as plastic pellets; resmelted aluminum and other metals; repurposed glass; and recycled paper, all of which is marketed to help defray the cost of picking it up.

"Most years it brings in about $2 million in revenue annually for Fayette County," Feese said.

That revenue helps to offset the cost of providing the recycling service to residents, but the revenue is not enough to pay for the entire program, which also relies on user fees, according to Mark York, spokesman for the city's Division of Environmental Policy.

In addition to finding new uses for garbage, the city composts yard waste, such as leaves and downed limbs, into mulch. More than 345,000 tons of debris from the ice storm that crippled the city for more than a week in 2003 were kept out of the landfill, Feese said.

It wasn't always this way. When Feese, who grew up on a farm in Casey County, moved to the city with his wife, a pediatrician, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government was looking for someone to run a pilot recycling program and grow it into full-scale municipal recycling.

With a background in soil and water conservation in West Virginia and a deep interest in the environment, Feese got the job.

At the time, there wasn't any significant recycling, Feese said, beyond a drop-off center where people could take recyclables.

The city relied on twice-a-week garbage collection.

"Everything went in one container and everything went to the landfill," Feese said.

In 1989, the first versions of the now-familiar "Rosie," the recycling container, were delivered to four neighborhoods — Gardenside, Cumberland Hill, St. Martin's Village, and Meadowthorpe — to see how well people would participate.

"People liked it," Feese said.

The program rolled out citywide in the early 1990s, with everyone getting the now-familiar blue Rosie for recycling and green "Herbie" for trash. (In 1997, the city added the grey "Lennie" for yard waste.)

Then-vice mayor Pam Miller, a big advocate for the Rosie, would drive through the neighborhoods counting blue bins, to gauge participation, Feese said.

"We always made it so easy for people that it wasn't a hard sell in terms of the community," Miller said. "It was something that made sense to people once we educated them. We tried to make it clear that this was going to save landfill expenses."

In the early 90s, as landfill expenses and environmental awareness were increasing, the city began to look at trash as a potential revenue stream.

Eventually, the city added a material recycling facility to take in recyclable goods from surrounding counties and switched to single-stream recycling so Lexington residents didn't have to sort cans and bottles from paper anymore.

"Now it's become a huge industry across the United States," Feese said.

Most trash these days is split between Rosie and Herbie, but there could still be more recycling done.

"About 30 percent of people don't use recycling at all. It takes education," Miller said.

"You see people actually doing the right thing. There's an active participation part of it. You see tangible results that people are changing their habits. Try to be better environmental stewards," Feese said. "That's what's so gratifying."

It wasn't always a smooth transition: when the city went to once-a-week garbage pickup, many residents howled. But, Feese said, the move made financial sense.

"One of the reasons we were able to go to once-a-week trash collection is there wasn't as much in the Herbie anymore. Only about 30 percent were setting one out on the second day," Feese said. Consequently, the city was able to reduce the number of people employed in waste collection and move toward safe automated trucks, he said.

LFUCG has set a goal of joining cities like Austin, Texas, and San Jose, Calif., as "zero-waste" communities by 2020. Achieving the goal could involve charging residents different fees for the amount of trash generated — the smaller your Herbie, the less you pay.

"We'll still have some stuff put in the landfill a decade from now, but the philosophy's about moving forward, taking opportunities to say, 'Hey, we can carve out this part of the pie when you look at the waste stream, divert to a beneficial use,'" Feese said.

The next big step for the city: food waste composting.

"That's a pretty sizeable chunk of what we throw away," Feese said.

"We've done a few pilot programs and it's easily incorporated in yard waste. It needs to be easy for urban residents to do. ... We all throw it away anyway, we just have to fashion a process to make it easy to do and get away from the 'ick' factor. We're not there yet. But I'm sure we'll get there."

The next big step for Feese: returning to his farming roots, on a small farm he and his wife, Robin, have off Old Frankfort Pike and Alexandria Drive, behind Calumet Farm.

"I've got about two years of solid work on my farm that I have to take care of first," he said. "One of these days, I may think about doing some consulting."

In other words, he might be recycled.