Investigation: Where does the recycling in Bloomington really go?
By: Richard Underwood
Every week, the City of Bloomington Sanitation Department collects trash and recycling from residential properties, many of which are houses rented by IU students, and almost every week, some of those recycling bins are left full on the curb.
IU student and renter Josh Thompson told me he doesn’t know why his recycling is rejected.
“Last week I thought I did everything right, but they left it all anyway”, Thompson said.
“Sometimes I wonder if there is a point in doing this at all, what if they just throw away our recycling with the rest of the trash?”
I set out to find the answer to that question: where does your precious recycling actually go if you’re lucky enough to have the city take it?
I began by contacting the City of Bloomington Sanitation Department, which handles recycling within city limits. They quickly directed me to The Monroe County Solid Waste District, who promptly provided me with this report (http://gogreendistrict.com/public-info_20_463535807.pdf), which contained a wealth of data regarding the composition of waste within the District, as well as what sites some waste is directed to. The problem is that the report was dense, full of numbers, and quite frankly, very boring. I decided to answer this question the old fashioned way: undercover reporting.
My plan was to follow one of the city’s recycling trucks during a morning collection, and document where a piece of recycling eventually ended up. I quickly realized it would be too easy to make my tail on their truck. I realized I would have to go deeper: I would have to go undercover in the recycling itself.
After pitching my plan to my producers at The Flipside, I was sent to our AV department and fitted with a number of hidden cameras and recording devices. Then we worked with the costume department from a local high school theater who outfitted me in a convincing disguise: various gallon jugs and Amazon boxes attached to my clothing.
At four in the morning on trash day, I assumed my position inside one of our producer’s recycling bins. When the truck had finally arrived at my bin, I relaxed all of my muscle groups as I had been practicing. I felt the robotic arm squeeze the sidewalls of the plastic bin, and suddenly I was floating along with the rest of the trash, then falling. Then, everything went to black.
8:55 AM EST
I woke up with a dull pain everywhere. It felt like I was in a Chuck-E-Cheese ball pit, but cleaner. I felt around and realized I was in what was most likely the holding compartment of the parked recycling truck. I checked my recording equipment; it was still running. I had a feeling I was only hours away from revealing where the recycling in Bloomington was really going, so I got ready for my big confrontation. I rehearsed my questions: “Who are you working for? What do you stand to gain from doing this? Is it an addiction? Do you get off from this?” It was going to be beautiful. Then I felt the pit of recyclables shifting, and more was raining down from above. Everything went to black again.
10:37 PM EST
I spent the past three hours or so hyperventilating into a bag of SunChips so I wouldn’t pass out. It had been my own choice to venture into the dark, dank underbelly of the recylinig system, and I understood that as with any investigative assignment, there were risks associated with taking it on. Still, I wasn’t doing this for kicks. I was doing this for a higher and more noble cause: the truth. As journalists, we must suffer discomfort and personal inconvenience to oh f***! F***! Get the f*** away, Jesus Christ back the f*** off I, I swear I will kick you in your racoon t***- sorry you had to hear that. I encountered an angry and diseased racoon while climbing my way to the top. There is no food chain inside these steel walls. I am separated from the other animals by only my fragile flesh and bone, and 2.5 tons of mixed recycling. At the top, the air was finally light and clean, and I could see a faint outline of my surroundings through what I assume was moonlight, but for all I know it could have just been the sun shining through an old detergent bottle somewhere above me. Either way, I howled at it. I waited for a response somewhere out there in the polystyrene darkness, a mate to call back to my lone pleas. Only silence, and the sound of Amazon boxes collapsing under the weight of other bigger Amazon boxes. I howled myself to sleep.
3:22 AM UTC
My original plan had been to see where I was taken from the transfer station within the county. It became increasingly clear that I had missed that trip entirely, either during one of my long sleeps, or when I was trying to track down the angry raccoon so I could check for tags and see if it was up to date on it’s rabies shots. That’s all pointless now, my phone is long dead and my recording equipment is running on fumes. I’m running on fumes. It will be a miracle if this report makes the planned slot, let alone if any one ever lays eyes on it. I had no idea where I was now. Instead of confronting some shady guy from Big Plastic, I found myself sitting here. I was hungry, tired, in various forms of gastrointestinal distress, maybe from the racoon, maybe from all the Play-Dough I ate yesterday while scavenging the pile for sustenance. It doesn’t matter, all I knew is that I was a man, and that man was wretched, and no closer to the story than I was back in that Bloomington driveway.
Next recoverable file: 3 days later, 8:04 AM UTC
There is no God here. I do not think this is hell, nor is it purgatory. Maybe this is heaven. Maybe I died the moment I fell from the trash bin back in Bloomington and all of this has been the last sparks of life firing through my synapses. All I know is it feels like forever. The lights on my recording equipment barely come on anymore. Maybe I just imagine them coming on. I met a kind woman to keep me warm in the perpetual winter that shivers through the plastic. She bears the latest fashions of OshKosh B’Gosh. She is a woman of status, she keeps the price tags on. Sometimes I wish she could take that long metal pole out of her back and we could dance. She says she would be all wooden on the dance floor, but I don’t believe her. I know those long, shiny legs can play. I try to remember how I got here, why I’m here. Something about people being angry they had to sort their trash. Such problems seem so far away now. Sometimes FALL COLLECTION 2018 (She kept her maiden name) seems so far away from me, but I know that like anyone, she needs her space, so I give it to her.
Editor’s note: Late into the night of January 22nd, we learned that a man was found adrift in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and was recovered alive by some fishermen cleaning their nets. He was transported in critical condition to a hospital in Portland Oregon. We later confirmed that this man was our own Dick Underwood, who as some may recall, was reporting on what happens to items recycled through the city’s program. Once Dick’s condition became stable, he filed this report:
Some time ago I tried to report on what happens to your recycling. I hoped to shed light on the process and uncover any instances of corruption or misconduct along the recycling stream. I envisioned a report which gave our readers an idea of what their recycling was actually used for so they can make their own decisions about whether or not to participate . Instead, all I can tell you about where your recycling goes is that it goes to a bad place. I will forever have nightmares about my time there. When I close my eyes, I don’t see black; I’m there again. When I see a blue bin in a restaurant or office, I feel taunted by it. This is my report: go ahead, recycle, only if you wish to banish your household waste to a place so awful that all of the liquor one man can down cannot erase it’s horrible nightmares. Nothing good comes from this place. Only pain. For Flipside Investigates, I’m Dick Underwood, in Room 244 of the OHSU Hospital in Portland.