As the Resource Recycling Conference kicked off in Indianapolis last week, the host city’s recent decision to turn to mixed waste processing was the subject of a fiery and insightful debate.

The “Separation Anxiety” panel at the 2015 Resource Recycling Conference focused largely on whether Indianapolis made a mistake last year when it agreed to a contract with Covanta to send the city’s commingled residential trash and recyclables to a $45 million mixed-waste processing facility to be designed by Van Dyk Recycling Solutions. The plenary panel was moderated by equipment and technology expert Nat Egosi, from RRT Design & Construction.

While the facility is still in the permitting phase of construction and an ongoing lawsuit threatens to undo the agreement altogether, panelists didn’t mince words when it came to supporting or opposing the plan in place.

In the eyes of Carey Hamilton, who directs the Indiana Recycling Coalition, the problem is not necessarily the technology behind mixed waste processing, but the terms of the agreement, which penalizes the city for attempting to expand curbside recycling through 2028.

“We, as an organization, don’t have a position against dirty MRFs,” Hamilton said during her opening remarks. “What we oppose is the municipal stranglehold this agreement puts in place through 2028.”

She also said Covanta’s monopoly on Indianapolis’ waste stream “would almost ensure” the state of Indiana won’t reach its goal of a 50 percent recycling rate by 2019.

Scott Holkeboer, Covanta’s market area vice president, stood by the contractual terms of the agreement and took on a separate claim by another panelist John Barth, an at-large member of the Indianapolis City Council, who said the deal was struck “behind closed doors.”

“We submitted an unsolicited bid to them and we found that at the time the administration [of Mayor Greg Ballard] was working very diligently to advance recycling,” Holkeboer said. “The city actually made out pretty good with this deal.”

He also said a popular concern among some within the industry that the company is planning to send recyclables next door to its fully operational waste-to-energy plant are unfounded.

“It’s a common misconception out there that people think we want to build this facility so we can burn material next door. I’d literally be burning money if I burned a bale of recyclables,” Holkeboer said.

Holkeboer’s counterpart on the panel, Brian Schellati, director of business development at Van Dyk, meanwhile, offered the most vocal defense of the technology to be employed at Covanta’s multi-million-dollar facility.

Under the terms of the contract, Covanta is supposed to recycle at least 18 percent of the waste it receives, well above what the city is currently achieving, but about half of the national average.

Barth said a city-wide curbside program would “crush” an 18 percent recycling rate.

While it’s use in the U.S. remains centralized in parts of California, countries in Europe have been relying on mixed-waste processing for more than a decade and seeing good results, Schellati said.

“They’re learning from the failures of other countries that are doing it differently,” Schellati said. “All of the technology that we’re using has been field-proven for well over 10 years.”

Whether or not recovered commodities from a mixed-waste processing center can be resold might be another question, panelists said.

Myles Cohen, who serves as the president of recycling at Pratt Industries, one of the world’s largest recovered fiber companies, said paper is inevitably harmed in the process due to its proximity to a host of wet wastes, including diapers and food.

“You can’t clean it up,” Cohen said. “If the product is going to be hard to work with, there’s no reason to buy it.”

Scott Saunders, general manager of the recycling division at KW Plastics, offered a different take. According to Saunders, recovered plastics the company currently purchases from mixed-waste facilities holds up and helps feed a growing demand for more material.

“We approach this from a different point of view,” Saunders said. “We’re always looking for new suppliers and growing streams, so we’re open more so to new ideas and what we’ve found over the years is that dirty MRF material has gotten a lot better.”

According to Saunders, the quality, value and usability of plastics recovered from a temporarily shuttered mixed-waste facility in Montgomery, Ala. is on par with material from single-stream operations.

All panelists agreed that Indianapolis’ current recycling program, which is a subscription-based curbside program reaching just 10 percent of the population, has not been a success.

With Barth ceding the city has “done an awful job about promoting recycling,” Hamilton referred to the current system as “elitist subscription service.”

How to address that issue was the lingering question of the panel.

“Let’s slow down, have a competitive bidding process and see what happens,” Hamilton proposed. “Maybe Covanta wins, maybe they don’t, but let’s at least have that conversation.”

In response, Covanta’s Holkeboer relied on a popular adage in appealing to attendees of the 2015 Resource Recycling Conference.

“Don’t let perfection get in the way of pretty darn good,” Holkeboer said.