Ask WAVE: Does curbside recycling in Louisville really get recycled?

A viewer asked WAVE whether the metro's curbside recycling ends up in a landfill.
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 11:47 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - You break it down, bag it up, load it in and haul it to the curb every other week. But do you ever wonder if your home’s recyclables are actually converted into new materials?

Vance submitted a question to Ask WAVE:

“What happens to the recycling when it leaves in a city truck? Where does it go? How is it separated and recycled? Or is it just all going to the landfill?”

Curbside recycling in the Louisville Metro is picked up by metro trucks and delivered directly to WestRock Recycling in Louisville. WestRock sorts the material in a variety of ways, high-tech and low.

First, large pieces and bags are broken down by hand. Then, a series of machines complete the sorting process. Some are as simple as a mechanism that uses gravity to separate glass. Others are as complex as a brand new robot that uses artificial sight and intelligence to sort certain types of plastic. In one case, a large magnet pulls cans straight up off a conveyor belt. In another, a “bounce belt” literally bounces empty plastic containers away from other materials.

Once sorted and baled, the recyclables are packed onto trains that leave directly from WestRock’s property.

The fibrous paper material is transported directly to WestRock papermills that convert it into new cardboard.

All other materials are sent to various other vetted companies that are actively buying these materials for use.

“Recycled fiber, plastics and metals [are marketed] to secondary processors and other end users for feed stock in their manufacturing processes,” said Laura Veldman, the recycle plant buyer at WestRock. “WestRock chooses its vendors very carefully and trusts in their manufacturing techniques to use the recycling materials to their maximum potential.”

“We have a home for each of the materials that we’re able to recover,” said Veldman, and she is confident it is a home that is not a landfill.

Veldman and other WestRock execs say just about 5% of curbside materials cannot be recycled through their facility, and that is simply because those products were never supposed to be placed in curbside recycling bins.

The other 95% of Louisville’s curbside material, or 12,000 tons a month, is converted into new product. However, Veldman and her WestRock associates understand that residents might be skeptical thanks to recent reports on recycling woes in other municipalities.

“Unfortunately not all recycling facilities are the same, and that is across the country,” said Veldman. “I am happy to attest that here in Louisville, your material definitely gets recycled.”

Furthermore, Veldman said the process is cost-effective, too.

“We wouldn’t be here if it didn’t make sense,” said Veldman.

WestRock and the Louisville Metro offer the app Recycle Coach to help residents understand which items belong in their curbside bins.

If you have a question you would like to submit to Ask WAVE, email kathleen.ninke@wave3.com.