HOBART -- Hobart Public Works employee Danny Miller reached for a gallon of used latex paint sitting on a shelf amid hundreds of other discarded cans.
He passed the can off to co-worker Shaun McGushion, who slid it into a red crusher.
McGushion shut the door, and seconds later white paint shot down into a container, through a line and up to a large tank, while the can -- as flat as a pancake -- flew into another container, ready for recycling.
The men repeated the process Wednesday with several other cans of paint that flowed into the tank where huge paddles mixed it all together.
A valve at the bottom released the mixed paint into black plastic recycled cans. Miller put lids on the cans and placed them in a shaker, where the paint was made ready to use again.
The test run, in a new Hobart Public Works building, was the result of an idea two years in the making that a number of Lake County and solid waste officials hope will catch on nationwide.
The machine is the brainchild of Lake County Solid Waste Management District chief Jeff Langbehn and Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District chief Steve Christman, who oversees solid waste in LaGrange, Steuben, DeKalb and Noble counties.
"We came up with the idea literally on the back of a napkin," said Christman, who made sure the design included safety features to meet OSHA specifications.
If it works as planned, it will keep tens of thousands of gallons of paint, and cans, out of landfills every month.
Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties stopped taking latex paint at household hazardous waste collections because the cost of disposal was too expensive.
Solid waste officials could then only recommend that residents put cat litter in their used paint and wait for it to dry, then toss the cans into the garbage.
"It really troubled me because we are all about reducing waste, and we were putting cans in a landfill," Langbehn said.
Langbehn and Christman designed a huge paint mixer, using a 1,600-gallon farm stock tank manufactured in Texas.
Christman then tapped the expertise of fabricator Jim Clifford, owner of Complete Enterprises Inc., who designed a steel frame for the tank and other components to process the paint from start to finish.
The business is in Ashley, just north of Fort Wayne.
"We needed a way to handle the paint in bulk to effectively mix and redispense it in clean containers. It's a post-consumer product," Langbehn said.
The building, located near Hobart's Public Works Department, is large enough so that, depending on the success of the project, two more recycling units could be added.
"Right now it's a lot of trial and error," Langbehn said.
"If it plays out we may be able to handle 300,000 gallons of paint a year."
The paint which goes through strainers before and after going into the mixing tank, always comes out a beige color, with slight variations, depending on the batch, since most of the used paint is white, Langbehn said.
The city of Hobart will offer the paint free of charge to municipalities and not-for-profits, and for $3 a gallon to others.
There is no profit for the city or the waste district.
"That covers the cost of our Public Works employees and the new cans," Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor said.
Total cost for the project, including the new building near the Hobart Public Works Department, comes to $50,000, $20,000 of which came from a grant from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Langbehn said.
"We were spending $30,000 a month to get rid of the paint," Langbehn said.
"We're going from 100 percent waste to 100 percent recycling."
The building trades and electrical unions got on board with the project offering work for service hours, Langbehn said.
Depending on the success of the project, Lake County might begin accepting paint from other counties, with the approval of the Hobart City Council and Snedecor.
Langbehn credited Hobart with agreeing to host the paint recycling site.
The city initiated a green push this year, increasing the number of homes that recycle by 1,700, Public Works Director Wayne Snider said.
"This is the first in the state and to the best of my knowledge, the first in the country," Langbehn said.
He added that he's already heard from solid waste districts in Iowa and California who are interested in the recycler.
"Districts around the country are wrestling with this problem," he said.
Christman, who has been in solid waste for 31 years, said he's never run across anything similar.
"It's been a fun challenge. We like to break new wake to try to solve some of these problems," he said.