For decades now, cities and communities in the U.S. and around the world have been struggling to cope with growing volumes of waste. Many have had a difficult time getting more residents and businesses to recycle, even as discarded plastics, paper, metals, glass and other materials continue to pile up in landfills – a blot on the landscape that has prompted landfill closures and an intensified search for better alternatives.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and the municipal government believe they have found a sustainable waste management solution that's a winner all-around – environmentally, socially and economically. Last week, the city government approved a plan to construct an Advanced Recycling Center (ARC) that will be integrated with a long-running energy-from-waste (EfW) plant that's expected to increase the amount of materials recycled 500 percent, boost steam heat and clean energy generation for use throughout the downtown area, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – all at no cost to the city.

Investing $45 million to build what's billed as the most advanced integrated waste management system in the Americas, Covanta will build and operate the ARC, making a return on its investment by selling the metals, plastics and paper it extracts from Indianapolis's solid waste stream, as well as by generating steam for city use by incinerating and capturing the energy and recyclable metal from the residual waste that remains. What's more, Indianapolis residents won't have to sort or separate their trash, and the city's existing sanitation services will carry on doing the collection.

Like many cities around the U.S., Indianapolis officials have been striving to raise the city's recycling participation rate, which has been hovering around 10 percent, and the amount of materials recycled from its solid waste stream, which stands at around 5 percent.

Covanta's ARC will immediately raise Indianapolis's recycling participation rate to 100 percent, and remove 80-90 percent of paper, plastic and metals in its solid waste stream for recycling, Covanta's Director of Media and External Relations James Regan said. The city's existing sanitation services will pick up unsorted trash put out by residents and businesses, delivering them to the ARC site, placing no extra burden on them or the city's budget and infrastructure.

Once city trash bags are delivered to the ARC and opened, the solid waste will be screened and grouped by size. From there, it will pass through a series of magnets to recover ferrous metals and repel non-ferrous metals, such as aluminum cans.

Trommel screens and ballistic separators then sort the solid waste by density and shape. Ultimately, optical sorters using infrared sensing at 320,000 scanned points per second are used to screen and route materials. The recovered materials are then sorted by commodity and bailed before shipping to buyers.

“Mayor Ballard for a number of year has been looking for ways to increase the amount of materials recycled and the city's recycling rate,” said Marc Lotter, the mayor's communications director.

Mayor Ballard has enacted other initiatives to enhance sustainability and quality of life in Indianapolis, Lotter noted. These include establishing the city's first office of sustainability. The mayor has also received international recognition for his efforts to promote uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), “moving the transportation sector away from dependence on foreign oil,” Lotter said. Covanta's ARC, he continued, “is intended to complement those efforts without tax increases and without mandates.”

Commenting on the Covanta ARC project for a press release, Mayor Ballard stated, “Covanta’s Advanced Recycling Center provides a commonsense solution that makes Indy a much more sustainable city. This state-of-the-art facility will take Indy from a 10 percent recycling participation rate to 100 percent without any new government mandates, fees or tax increases.  It is a win-win-win for the city, its residents and the environment.”

Added Covanta president and CEO Anthony J. Orlando, “The Covanta Advanced Recycling Center, combined with our Energy-from-Waste facility, will create a first-of-its-kind, next-generation system for sustainably managing waste in North America, further supporting Indianapolis’ position as a national leader in sustainability.”

The ARC will be integrated with Covanta's Indianapolis EfW plant, which has been meeting as much as 50 percent of downtown Indianapolis's heating and cooling needs by generating steam from high-temperature incineration and energy capture since 1988, Regan explained.

Integrating the ARC with the EfW plant will reduce Indianapolis's GHG emissions even as it boosts the amount of energy captured from the city's solid waste stream, primarily by reducing the amount of solid waste dumped in landfills, which winds up decaying and releasing methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

“These [EfW] facilities are highly regulated according to the Clean Air Act, and states enforce those emissions regulations,” Regan elaborated. “The standards that have been put in place are fully protective of human and environmental health and safety.” Moreover, Regan went on to point out that emissions from Covanta's EfW plants range from 60-90 percent below those required by the Clean Air Act.

“Some of our facilities earn carbon offset credits for the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” Regan pointed out. European countries have been keener on EfW than the U.S., and the European Union (EU) Landfill Directive bans biodegradable waste from landfills. 

“Germany has almost zero waste-to-landfill, recycling 70% [of solid waste], and employing energy recovery for the remaining 30 percent,” Regan said. “They've done a really good job. Whole neighborhoods are being heated, cooled and powered from EfW.” With the completion of Covanta's ARC and its integration with the EfW plant, Indianapolis residents and businesses will soon enough be benefiting from one of the most advanced, integrated waste management systems in the world.

Covanta is recovering almost 500,000 tons of post-recycled metals per year from its recycling plants around the U.S. “That's about five Golden Gate Bridge's worth,” Regan noted. Overall, the company is generating clean energy by processing about 19-20 million tons of post-recycled solid waste per year in the U.S., enough to power about 1 million homes.

Andrew Burger is an independent journalist, researcher and writer who covers topics such as ecology, technology, politics, economy and sociology. His lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led him near and far afield, from Europe, Asia and the Middle East to Africa and across the Americas.