Recycling Kentucky: Why recycling matters, and how we can help ourselves and the environment by reducing, re-using and recycling

Recycling is more than just the right thing to do, it saves money and helps the environment

Did you know your trash cans are potentially full of cash?

Plastic bottles, cans and paper all have a cash value, but in Kentucky, we still throw away more than we recycle.

The cans we toss could become a new baseball bat or a new (old) can. It could even earn a few cents if it’s recycled. But once in the trash bin, it’s likely on its way to the

Compacted aluminum cans ready to be recycled

landfill where it costs money to dispose of, taking up space in a finite resource.

More than four million Kentuckians produce some amount of solid waste every day. And that solid waste has to go somewhere.

“We’d love to recycle more than we throw away, but we have to make small steps and cultural changes to get there,” said Gary Logsdon, the branch manager of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection’s Recycling and Local Assistance branch.

Solid waste disposal and recycling are just two of the processes the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection oversees. The two go hand-in-hand because the more waste materials we recycle, the less waste we throw away. Instead of being re-used or made into something new, recyclable solid waste that doesn’t get recycled eventually ends up in landfills. By recycling that material, taxpayers save money, businesses can save money and help the environment, and we preserve natural resources for future use.

In Kentucky, we recycle about a third of our solid waste, which is nearly twice as much as it was in the year 2000, when we recycled just 15 percent of our solid waste. We generate nearly six million tons of solid waste every year! The more waste we generate, the more we pay to dispose of it.

“When you’re doing recycling, you’re doing more than just re-using a piece of material that can be used over again,” said Tony Hatton, KYDEP director of Waste Management. “You’re actually reserving resources that would be used to build something with new materials from scratch.”

paper recycling

There are several factors that influence how much material we recycle, what we recycle and whether the recycling markets even allow for a material to be recycled.

“A lot of the materials that are recycled require energy, and sometimes resources, such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, they require a lot of resources to manufacture them,” said Hatton.

Recycling depends upon more than having the means and a desire to recycle materials. The cans, bottles, paper, cardboard and other materials we recycle have to have some sort of value, and be collected in large enough volumes to turn a profit for the entities collecting them.

“Some of it’s always going to be market driven. I don’ think you can just throw money at it and make a good recycling program,” Hatton said.

“Tires, newspapers, old phone books, cardboard, household waste are all things that can end up in landfills, on the roadside or in illegal dumps. We want these items to be reused in some way that’s beneficial to society,” Logsdon said.

Every time we throw a can, a plastic bottle, a piece of paper or anything recyclable into a landfill, into an illegal dump or onto the roadside, it costs money.

It costs, roughly:

$1,000 a ton to pick up litter

$100 a ton to clean an illegal dump

$30 a ton to dispose of waste at a landfill

But when you recycle solid waste, it’s the only scenario where the taxpayers don’t pay to dispose of waste, the public benefits, raw materials can be used for other projects and landfill space isn’t used. Each item we recycle sets off a chain reaction of positive actions for the people and the environment.

The KDEP is committed to a recycling program that assists local governments in keeping their roadways clean, enhances their local recycling programs, cleans up illegal dumps and gets rid of old tires.

“Recycling requires equipment. It requires equipment to move materials around. It requires equipment to process materials like cardboard balers, bottle balers, things like that,” Hatton said. “Most of the time we provide in our recycling grants equipment. Whether it is a skid steer or a baler of some type, or even in some cases it provides money to build a recycling building. It’s a leg up for them,  the grant recipients, to build their infrastructure so that they can begin to implement their recycling program.”

The state allocates about $9 million each year to the litter abatement and grant programs to counties that can be spent on equipment, infrastructure or even capital projects.

Recyclying Chart

The Three R’s: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

The average American discards seven and one-half pounds of garbage every day, but Kentuckians are more wasteful than the average. We landfill or recycle more than eight pounds per person per day. Most of this garbage goes into landfills, where it’s compacted and buried. Recycling typically requires far less energy than creating products from raw materials, uses fewer natural resources, and keeps waste from piling up in landfills. Recycling also offers significant energy savings in the manufacturing arena. It cost less to produce materials with recycled materials than it does with virgin materials.


“We want to have a mindset of continuous improvement. If we recycle a third of our waste now, we’d like that to be a little better every year, making noticeable gains every four or five years. We do that through education and funding at a local level,” Logsdon said.

Kentucky has made significant progress in the recycling arena. In 1994, we only recycled five percent of our solid waste. The rate climbed steadily from five percent, until about seven years ago, when the state peaked at about 35 percent. Since 2008, the state recycling rate has been steady, averaging around 30 percent.

The national average for recycling sits at around 34 percent, up from 25 percent 20 years ago. So while Kentucky has come a long way from five percent in 1994, it still lags the national average. The state just awarded more than $3 million in grants for the recycling and household hazardous waste collection programs. The 2015 Pride Grant Recipients range from small municipalities to large cities. They all have the goal of getting more waste into recycling centers.

Hatton said he knew early in the days of the recycling program that Kentucky could do great things with recycling if there was emphasis put on the program and counties.

“When you think of plastic bottles, which everybody uses, they’re not a real high profit margin unless you’re doing a great amount of volume,” Hatton said. “A few years ago, Washington County coordinated with Anderson County and Spencer County and the division supported a grant to Washington County. And they work in a collaborative sense, so they can get the volume of recyclable materials they actually need to have to make the recycling program viable. So that’s one of the early successes we had because we learned from that, when counties, particularly rural counties join together, they have a much better chance of being viable.”

That recycling center is still running today. The Washington County Recycling Center accepts glass, plastics, paper products, including cardboard, newspapers, magazines, books and etc., aluminum and steel cans, e-scrap and slicks. The reason? Emphasis was put on recycling, counties worked together, funding was made available and the markets want the recyclable goods.

“The more money we’re able to give local governments, the more we’ll recycle. Local governments, when properly funded, can make recycling an easy process and provide services to the citizens that save money and resources that are used for waste disposal,” Logsdon said.

Keep Your Highways and Byways Clean

You’ve seen the signs on the roadway: a Boy Scout troop or a cheerleading team has adopted a local highway. But when organizations adopt highways, it’s a way for them to make money and a way to keep our roads free of litter.

Some of those funds come from the KYDEP. Local governments get about $5 million yearly from KYDEP to keep the highways free of litter.  The local governments then use that funding in a multitude of ways to give back to the community and keep the roadways clean.

“This is one of those programs where government and the private sector partner in a really beneficial way for everyone,” Logsdon said.

It’s also a way to keep roadside waste out of landfills. A lot of what’s thrown on to the side of the road can go directly into the recycling center.

“Paper waste. Bottles. Cans. All those types of things can be recycled,” Logsdon said.

Just two years ago, the citizens of the Commonwealth removed nearly 600,000 bags of litter, covering 155,000 road miles.

The Future

Landfill space is filling up across the country, although landfill space in Kentucky isn’t a significant problem right now.

“We’ve moved it (the recycling rate in Kentucky) 25 percent in the last twenty years. By continuing to educate, make grants available to counties to support recycling infrastructure, and hoping that the markets continue to support it, which I think they will as time goes on, that’s the key to it,” Hatton said.

An empty soda can might be one small thing, and you might only throw one on the road or you might just throw a few away every week. But every bottle, can or piece of trash counts. By reducing, re-using and recycling, we can make the Commonwealth a better and cleaner place to live, and we might save a few dollars along the way.

Hatton said if the demand for recycled goods stays strong, and counties work together for the greater good, recycling will grow in Kentucky.

But a cultural change is already happening. The younger generations think more consciously about what happens to their McDonald’s bag after they’re done with it than the generation before.

“The people who are least likely to roll the window down and throw a piece of garbage out are young people. Because over time, it’s just become something that generally not acceptable,” Hatton said.