The city of Indianapolis has given the green light to a processing center that will aim to sort recyclables from everyday trash. A high-volume, automated scavenger operation, if you will.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard announced the decision last week, and it comes alongside a 10-year extension to the city’s waste contract with Covanta.

While the premise of a mixed-waste (or “dirty”) MRF has angered some recycling advocates in the region, Marc Lotter, communications director for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, says the processing approach is proven and a sign of things to come throughout North America.

“This is working in Europe, and Indy is looking forward to becoming a model for success in North America,” Lotter said.

Past attempts and proposals to drive recycling in Indianapolis, Lotter says, were either too costly or simply not effective enough. The new facility, which will be funded and run by waste-to-energy (WTE) firm Covanta, will come at no cost to residents.

“Covanta is proposing to invest $45 million into the local economy, create 70 construction jobs and 60 permanent jobs, and increase the amount of material recycled by the city by up to 500 percent,” Lotter said.

Approximately 10 percent of Indianapolis residents are currently signed up for curbside recycling through a subscription program.

The basic idea of the approach is to radically simplify residents’ responsibilities by sorting recyclables from trash at the facility instead of asking consumers to do it at home. While contamination is often seen as a downside to the approach, Covanta’s director of media and external communications, James Regan, says the facility will produce high-quality, easily marketable recyclables.

“We’re making a $45 million investment, so we’ve done a fair amount of due diligence and met with many potential recycling partners, who have all confirmed a market for these materials,” Regan said. “We’re very confident this facility will perform well and minimize contamination.”

Individuals on the commodities side of the recycling business, however, continue to express worries about the quality level of materials that come out of garbage-sorting MRFs.

Fran McPoland, Washington representative for the Paper Recycling Coalition, said the paper companies in that group require extremely clean material to create new products such as cereal boxes. She and others struggle to see how any system that pulls material out of the residential trash stream could yield commodities that will fill their needs.

“Fundamentally we don’t believe you can contaminate fiber with organics and come out with fiber that can be used to turn back into fiber products,” McPoland said.

Covanta will build its 100,000-square-foot facility next door to its existing WTE plant, which has been operating since 1988. Regan says the two plants will work in tandem, with the new facility sending any non-recoverable material and waste to the WTE operation.

“The waste from the city of Indianapolis will be first delivered to the recycling center where it will be laid out, the bags will be broken and then it will go through a series of mechanical steps,” Regan explained. “After we pull out as many recyclables as possible, the remaining waste will be directly conveyed to the WTE facility and turned into steam.”

He said the facility will have the ability to recover all plastics and that Covanta is “currently looking into the economics and technology” to pull glass from the waste stream as well. According to Regan, glass can cause challenges for the boiler housed at the WTE facility, so there is an incentive for Covanta to separate it out beforehand. Regan said he would “categorically deny” earlier reports that inferred the facility would be making no efforts to separate glass.

Covanta hopes to open the plant in 16 to 18 months. A similar plant recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama and several cities, including Cleveland and Houston, are weighing the merits of the tactic.