FORT KNOX, Ky. — The changing landscape of recycling the past three years has ushered some changes in recycling requirements at Fort Knox’s Qualified Recycle Center.
The profitability of plastic and glass has all but dried up in the United States, prompting a halt in recycling efforts for those materials. Metals, paper and carboard have proven reliable for Army recycle centers to process.
Even with the removal of glass and plastic from the program, Recycle Center employees still processed and sold over 5.5 million pounds of materials in fiscal 2022.
However, community members continue to put unwanted materials and liquids in the remaining installation recycle bins.
“We have a huge problem with contamination here on post; in fact, it’s our biggest problem,” said Jamie Daley, program manager of the Fort Knox center. “It costs us money to sort and process items as well as it becomes a safety hazard for staff — and it cripples the economics of recycling.”
Contamination occurs when a customer dumps liquids or soiled items into a recycling bin filled with cardboard or paper products. According to Daley, one open bottle of soda can ruin an entire bin.
“If it gets on every piece of cardboard by the time it’s processed and put into the big truck, it’s shot,” said Daley. “It’s not good anymore.”
That one soda can then turn the recycled products into trash. And the employees find much more than just sodas thrown in with the cardboard or paper.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff we get on our cardboard. It’s bad. People throw chemicals in there, and batteries,” said Daley. “We had to call 9-1-1 one time because our building was smoking because there were batteries in our cardboard pit, and they had sparked.”
Daley, who manages the day-to-day business of recycling, said she feels that most people have good intentions, but may not understand exactly what’s accepted at the QRP.
“I think that in some circumstances people think all dumpsters are trash bins,” said Daley. “Or they’re our wishful recyclers and think if an item is recyclable and they throw it into any recycle container, it will eventually end up getting recycled. This not the case, and it drains recycle programs of time and therefore money.”
They estimate that about 70-75% of the products that customers place in the recycling bins at the Exchange parking lot contain actual recyclable materials. The employees must dump the rest into trash bins.
Recycle centers operate on what the federal government calls non-appropriated funds, or NAF. This means they must turn a profit in their business and use it to pay employees, bills, and any other costs they incur.
Two common examples of this type of funding are the Army & Air Force Exchange Service and Defense Commissary Agency. Like those organizations, Daley said she would love to take whatever extra profits they make and push them back into Fort Knox to support environmental programs and projects.
“They’re not paying us to recycle. Every dollar is critical for Fort Knox’s recycling program as we self-support totally,” said Daley. “The ultimate goal is to be able to put money back into the Fort Knox community.
“When somebody throws their trash in the cardboard, it’s directly impacting what we can do for Garrison or the Fort Knox community.”
Regarding plastics and glass, Daley and material handler supervisor Elias Santiago said the changing recycling landscape began roughly three years ago, when international interest in those materials waned.
“If we’re shipping the majority of our recycling out of the country and all of a sudden, they stop taking it, we’re not prepared to deal with it here, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Daley. “Now, we have a lot of plastic, and we don’t have enough places that are milling it.”
What Fort Knox leaders discovered after conducting a survey was that most of the plastic was coming from off-post facilities. At the same time, they were unable to sell, or even give away the plastics they had.
“We had five years of plastic piled up when I started here,” said Daley.
When they finally found a company that agreed to take the backlogged plastics, they ended up incurring a loss in processing costs to get rid of it.
“It’s just not a cost-effective process for the QRP,” said Daley. “Plastic became a huge drain … and tipped the scales too far in the red. So, do we keep taking the material, or do we jeopardize the program?”
The companies that do mill plastics are often too far away to justify keeping the program.
“As a for instance, the cost of transportation has gone up,” said Daley. And those companies that do take plastic only accept the types that “are not normally your typical household plastics that we generate for the most part here on post.”
As a result, the Fort Knox Recycle Center no longer accepts plastics. Yet, people keep placing plastic into recycling bins rather than disposing of it as trash.
Daley said there are a few things community members can do to help.
“Something as simple as breaking down your boxes saves our program as we don’t have to drive and empty the dumpsters as often when boxes are broken down,” said Daley.
Also, don’t put non-cardboard and non-paper items in the recycling bins.
Know the QRPs acceptable materials: used pure motor and cooking oils; used pure antifreeze; scrap metals and items made of 50% or more metal; wooden pallets; lead acid batteries; aluminum cans, toner cartridges.
For more information on what to recycle, what not to, and how, visit the Fort Knox Recycling website at Recycling :: U.S. Army Fort Knox: Gold Standard Army Installation.
“Contamination is what really impacts recycling, and that’s not just here, that’s across recycling centers everywhere,” said Daley. “Contamination is the critical element that can make it or break it for recycling.”