IU produces nearly 9,000 tons of trash each year. But after the student throws it away, where does it go?

Jeff Keene pulled his semi truck onto State Road 37.

Behind him he carried 40,000 pounds of trash. Ahead of him was 55 miles of road on the way to Pimento, Indiana, and the Sycamore Ridge Landfill, where all of IU’s trash goes.

Keene has made the drive to the landfill thousands of times in his 16 years working with Endurance Environmental. It’s muscle memory to him now.

“It’s automatic,” Keene said. “Going back and forth, the only thing that changes is every once in a while they put extra lights in. Some of the businesses change.”

He’s familiar with the Ellettsville, Indiana, traffic and the tractors on the road that slow him down. He’s learned the cycle of songs that play on the radio over the course of his 12 hour shift, so he never turns it on. He’s especially acquainted with Spencer, Indiana, his hometown he drives through on every trip.

Keene is 45 years old now and has been driving since he was 21. He prefers it much more than being “chained down” in a factory or office.

It was just before 9 a.m. and already his second trip of the day to the landfill. He’d soon empty his trailer, adding to the 12 million tons of trash already sitting underneath him.

“It’s a job that has to be done,” Keene says. “Someone has to do it.”


Every year, IU produces 9,000 tons of trash.

Republic Services works with IU to take care of all of the university’s trash. Once the trash ends up in a dumpster, the company’s trucks pick it up and empty it at the Hoosier Transfer Station before loading it on a semi truck like Keene’s and sending it to the landfill near Terre Haute — the closest Republic Services landfill to Bloomington.

There are closer landfills to IU, including some in Bloomington that aren’t active. But the university’s disposal contract runs through the transfer station. From there, Republic Service decides to send it to Terre Haute.

The environmental cost of trash is heavy, including the emissions from the trucks that drive it and the methane the landfill produces. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, municipal waste landfills were the third-largest producers of methane emissions in 2019.


As the conversation around climate change grows more urgent, including new climate provisions in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, there’s a growing sense of responsibility among students and employees to increase sustainability at IU.

Makayla Bonney, the assistant director of Sustain IU, the university’s Office of Sustainability, works to help students understand how to handle their waste. By making students aware of their waste habits, IU is better suited to improve its sustainability.

The first step Sustain IU has taken in that direction is changing the signs on campus where the garbage bins are located. When students throw away trash from lunch, they see a sign hanging above each hole describing what goes where: plastic water bottles are recycling, Starbucks cups are trash.

“I generate a bag of trash, maybe, a week and a full cart of recycling every two weeks. We are definitely more conscious of recycling than before I was in the business.”

- Jason Roland

But there are issues with the signage. Where there are compost bins, such as in the Indiana Memorial Union, the signage overlaps — food containers can go in the landfill or they can go in the compost bin, and students have to make that decision. Other than dining halls which have compost bins, everything goes to a landfill.

Ideally, Bonney wants the students to be educated before they reach the signs. But with new students every year, Sustain IU is constantly focusing on reeducating rather than advancing knowledge.

If students are better educated, IU could improve how much waste is diverted away from the landfill annually. As it stands, the university has room to improve.

Before the trash ends up in the landfill or taken off the campus, it first gets handled by a student.

The Freshman and his Fork

Larson Parker picked up a fork at the end of the IMU salad bar. Parker, a freshman studying environmental science, bought a salad with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, peppers, onions and olives.

His salad fueled the rest of his Thursday, where he had no more classes but two club meetings. He ate the last few bites, leaving only a few mushrooms and some arugula, before declaring himself full.

Parker, a member of Students for a New Green World, made his way to the bins. He’s more educated on trash than his fellow students, so he already had a plan when he got there.

larson throws away his trash
IU freshman Larson Parker throws his plastic fork into the landfill bin Oct. 21, 2021, at the Indiana Memorial Union dining hall. Larson said he wished he brought his reusable silverware, but he left them in his dorm room.

Most other students don’t have the same awareness. Another student walked up to the same bins. He glanced at all three signs: compost, recycling and trash, each telling the student where the different items of waste belong. Then he looked down at the container in his hands.

It looked the same as Parker’s salad container. It’s compostable. He looked back at the signs and decided not to overthink it. The container went in the trash.

Parker was more conscious of his trash. He divided up his waste, tossing each item in the bins. The salad went into the compost. The fork was designated landfill.

Parker feels guiltier about throwing away items than most students since he’s aware of the waste management process and the waste he’s producing.

For other students, more than the guilt, they have to overcome confusion stemming from the signs at the bins.


To reduce landfill waste, IU needs to educate its students and show them how to improve their habits.

In past years, IU’s cutlery has been compostable. This year the school had difficulty finding a vendor to buy compostable cutlery from, so it chose plasticware that needs to be thrown away.

Parker thinks one way to educate is to give students a test on sustainability and IU’s waste management before they arrive on campus.

Parker focuses on trying to live as sustainably as possible, which is why he uses paper plates in his dorm when he can’t use reusable dishes. He hides his recycling bin from his suitemates in Briscoe in the hopes that they think twice before throwing garbage in.

He owns reusable silverware too, even if he forgets it some days. When he does, he grabs a plastic fork even though he knows it isn’t good for the environment.

The guilt weighs on him, but he has to eat his salad. When he’s done, he throws away his fork.

The Invisible Custodian


John Zink pulled out a trash can and took a peek inside.

“All that could have went somewhere else,” he said, tipping the bin to get a better look at its contents.

Zink, a faculty services worker at the IMU, has no time to sort through the bins. They’re already understaffed, and it’s about to be rush hour at the dining hall.

He checks his phone for the time. 12:50 p.m. He’s nearing the end of his shift, but it’s the busiest part of the day.

He picks up his pace, making two more rounds of trash before his cart begins to overflow.

The university isn’t producing more trash than normal, even though it seems like it’s piling up. The IMU is producing more than its 10-ton compactor can hold because some other dining halls are closed. When trash piles up in the IMU, it’s because there isn’t enough staff to empty the bins.

At its busiest, the IMU produces 12 tons of trash in four days. As many as 8,000 students may walk through the Union on a given day, Zink estimates, each producing trash from their lunch or dinner in the dining hall.

Zink cares about keeping the IMU clean, which is why he’s not opposed to starting his day at 3 a.m. even though his shift isn’t supposed to start for another two hours. It’s also why he’s picking up trash at all. He was hired to change lightbulbs at the IMU — he says there’s 26,000, but also acknowledges that might be an overestimate — but the university is so understaffed it needs more people to empty trash bins.

So Zink spends most of his shifts going from trash can to trash can, compost bin to compost bin, emptying them out and taking them downstairs to the trash compactor to be picked up by a garbage truck and sent to the Hoosier Transfer Station.

Ideally, he would be able to spend time sorting out the bins at each garbage station at the IMU, putting compost and recycling and garbage where it belongs. Earlier in his shifts, before the lunchtime rush sweeps through, he might sort a few items.

The extra effort put into sorting the trash can increase IU’s divergence rate, or the percent of waste diverted away from the landfill to either recycling or compost. In a year, the university produces over 10 million pounds of waste sent to landfills. In 2019, Sustain IU reported that IU diverted 21% of landfill waste away from landfills, including 2.46 million pounds of recycling and 460,000 pounds of compost.

In a waste characterization assessment Sustain IU ran in 2019, only around 15% of what was in landfill bins was unrecoverable. The rest could have been diverted elsewhere, including 22.5% to recycling plants and nearly 45% to compost bins. As Sustain IU expands compost throughout the campus and updates their signage, it expects that diversion rate to increase, possibly by as much as 10%.

The color of the bags in the bins, rather than the content, tell Zink where he takes them. Black goes in the trash compactor and white goes in the recycling bin. Special green bags, which have a third of the life expectancy of the black trash bags, designate compost.


“Maybe that’s a flaw,” Zink said. “But that’s kind of how we have to do it.”

For the bin Zink pulled out, nearly full of containers from the IMU dining hall that are labelled compostable, he didn’t have time to do any sorting. The building was picking up with students getting out of classes and heading in for lunch. In the 30 seconds it took Zink to empty the bin, two students came up to throw trash away.

Zink tries not to let the students know he’s there. As much as possible, IU wants the custodial staff to be invisible, Zink said he was told while he was being trained, because it wants the students to be left alone.

On a small scale, the custodians’ disappearing act allows IU to boast about its cleanliness. It is a clean campus, but it hides the dirt well — ask Parker where the dumpsters are on campus, and he takes a moment to think before admitting he’s not sure. The limestone designs encompass areas for hidden dumpsters, keeping trash out of students’ minds and in corners where you would have to be looking to find it. But by hiding the trash, IU neglects the larger picture of environmental education.

“Back when I first started, trash would be everywhere. It just blows through the air. And you’re going to have that. But in the last 15 years things have really changed.”

- Jeff Keene

In the last hour of his shift, Zink will make three to four more rounds. As students file through the Union, he’ll empty bins full of forks and compostable lunch containers and take them to the trash compactor.

The Trash Manager

Jason Roland watches over the six bays of trash at the Republic Services Hoosier Transfer Station as the Monroe Country trucks pull in. Each truck dumps what it has collected before returning to their routes.

In one day, the transfer station accepts nearly 600 tons of trash from IU and the rest of Monroe County. Since the drive to Pimento takes around an hour and a half for the trucks, the transfer station provides an efficient drop off for Monroe County trucks while semi trucks bring larger loads to the landfill.

The semis roll through the transfer station, parking underneath the bays where garbage is piled up, waiting for a loader to fill it before shipping off.

Roland, the operations manager at the transfer station, is in charge of running the facility and managing the drivers. He started working with Republic Services nearly 11 years ago and has been in Bloomington for three.

“I generate a bag of trash, maybe, a week and a full cart of recycling every two weeks,” Roland said. “We are definitely more conscious of recycling than before I was in the business.”

Indiana University's trash journey

A comprehensive look at the life and death cycle of trash from Indiana University. Starting with the student and ending with a landfill over 50 miles away, the journey of a single piece of trash goes beyond any individual person.

In Bay 6 at the transfer station, nearly one and a half trailers’ worth of recycling sits, waiting to be loaded onto a semi and driven to Republic Services’ Indianapolis recycling plant. The piles contain crushed Mountain Dew cans, beer bottles and cardboard boxes. It’s one of the cleanest recycling plants that Indianapolis services, according to Republic Services.

Part of the reason the recycling is so clean is because Monroe County is ahead of other Indiana counties in teaching its residents how to recycle — and the residents care enough to do it. At this plant, recycling contamination sits near 20%, but the Indianapolis recycling center is likely to see levels from other stations closer to 35%.

The biggest problem is aspirational recycling. People are so eager to recycle they throw in all types of materials like pizza boxes and plastic bags. The bags clog up Republic Services’ systems, slowing them down and harming their ability to recycle the genuinely recyclable items.

To reduce that contamination level, Roland said Republic Services trains new customers on the recycling process and what can and can’t be thrown away.

Despite the nauseating scent of trash permeating the air, the Hoosier Transfer Station works hard to stay clean. The dumping bays have drains to catch leachate runoff, the liquid that leaks from trash, which is then sent to the nearby water treatment plant and cycled back into the city’s water system.

Below the dumping station, both sides of the tunnel are netted so trash doesn’t fly away while the truck drivers tarp their load. Another Republic Service worker stands nearby with a trash picker in case anything escapes.

To reduce its footprint on the climate, Republic Services wants to switch to electric vehicles that are nearly self-sufficient in producing energy by generating electricity when they brake.

Roland’s role within Republic Services keeps him busy with the trash and the people. Despite setting his alarm for 6 a.m., he’s usually already at the transfer station when it goes off.

He stumbled into the waste industry when a friend told him he does a good job running things and offered him a chance to interview for a supervisor position. He decided to do it.

“There’s always trash, so it’s going to be secure,” Roland said about his job.

He employs someone who works under him as a supervisor for the drivers. His job is more about planning, like how Republic Services will pick up trash from Memorial Stadium on game days. There’s more to the role than he originally thought — managing the trucks in compliance with the Department of Transportation and acting as a sort of psychiatrist for his employees.

Roland oversees a lot of waste, too. The station sends 25 truckloads to Pimento in one day, each loaded into a semi and sent off on the last leg of the journey.

The Long Road to the Landfill

Jeff Keene is nearly to his hometown of Spencer when his dad calls.

Since Keene spends so much time on the road, his friends and family know they can call him to talk anytime. His dad calls nearly every day around 9:30 a.m. to chat.

“He just wants to jabbermouth,” Keene said.

Keene said he can leave his dad on mute, walk away to use the bathroom and come back without his dad noticing. Today, however, is abnormal.

“What’s going on?” Keene said. “Hello? Are you talking? I can’t hear you.”

Keene hung up on his father and focused back on the road.

Permitted Municipal Landfills in Indiana

Per the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, there are 33 permitted municipal solid waste landfills in Indiana. Indiana University currently sends its trash to the Sycamore Ridge Landfill in Pimento,IN, just outside Terre Haute and about 56 miles away.

To dump his truckload at the landfill, Keene has to drive up a dirt hill to the current cell where waste is being buried. The process is repetitive: pull onto the hydraulic lift, tip your load into the pit below, drive off. Keene says he can be in and out in 15 minutes. Beneath the dumping platform are machines that spread out the trash to cover it with dirt, a requirement under Environmental Protection Agency policy.

When one section of the pit is full, the loaders are moved down to the next. When the whole level is complete, the trucks start building higher.

“It goes in layers,” Keene said. “We keep working our way that way and when it’s flush back there, it’s like we just come back and start over again.”

The description of a landfill brings to mind pictures of dumps and loose trash for many people. But this landfill is sanitary and runs like a factory.

“Back when I first started, trash would be everywhere,” Keene said. “It just blows through the air. And you’re going to have that. But in the last 15 years things have really changed.”


Each cell is approved and certified by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Slides to catch liquid leachate runoff are set up around the landfill to suck the runoff into a tank that gets sent to a treatment plant. Methane gas is pulled out of the landfill through wells and is either sent to Boral Bricks, a brick manufacturing company in Pimento, or burned off continuously throughout the year to prevent the landfill from smelling like rotten eggs.

A lot of the trash comes from Terre Haute, but Bloomington provides a large chunk of the 2,000 tons of trash arriving in Pimento every day.

Keene is one of 10 trucks carrying trash from the Hoosier Transfer Station to the landfill. He said each truck takes 65 gallons of gas per day to drive the 360 miles required for three round trips.

The Sycamore Ridge Landfill opened up in 2003 after the nearby Victory Landfill closed down. It sits on 108 acres of land, and when that fills up, Republic Services has another 100 acres to the south.

At its current rate, the landfill is projected to last until 2039. When it fills, Republic Services can expand onto the 455 surrounding acres it owns. Then, the landfill can last another 200 years.

When Keene started driving for Environmental Endurance, the landfill was still small. He’s watched it grow over his 16 years with the company, and it will long outlive his career.

Nobody around the landfill likes it. Republic Service has done a much better job in recent years of keeping trash from flying around, but it’s an eyesore, and the neighbors don’t like when the semis drive by

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A semi-truck dumps waste into the Republic Services Sycamore Ridge Landfill in Pimento, Indiana on November 5, 2021. The process of dumping takes five to ten minutes and then the truck leaves to go get the next load.

Loose trash sits at the top of the dump. There’s a Wendy’s cup and two Mountain Dew bottles, a crushed cardboard box for gutters, a pile of old cut up tires. Unlike the transfer station, there’s no one going around picking up litter, since it will all be buried under dirt anyway.

Keene backs his semi onto the tipper and unhooks the trailer from his truck. The truck is lifted up, dumping its load of trash into the pit to be buried.

For the thousandth time, Keene gets back in his truck. He has another load of trash he needs to pick up.