Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 1, 2022

Bin there, done with recycling confusion

Different cities, different rules frustrate even best intentions

On any given day, a small but fiercely dedicated army arrives to do battle. They come in SUVs, small sedans and pickup trucks. Their battle attire is tank tops, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops.

Their common enemy? Waste. Their ammunition is cardboard, aluminum cans and plastic bottles they faithfully march to recycling centers.

America is among the most wasteful countries in the world. Although we’re home to only 4% of the world’s population, we account for 12% of the planet’s garbage. In 2018 alone, we threw out more than 292 million tons of garbage, Environment America’s “Trash in America” report states. That’s almost 1,800 pounds a year per person.

Tennessee is No. 4 on the list of the most wasteful states, a study by international environmental group Eunomia reports. While the national recycling rate settles in at around 32%, Tennesseans recycle 7% of the most common recyclables, including plastic, aluminum and glass.

The lion’s share of waste goes to landfills.

Brentwood resident and recycler Olympia Lamuno got an up-close and upsetting picture of what that looks like when she had to visit a landfill.

“A few years ago, I went to the dump,” she says. “We were disposing of some big items, and it was my first time going to a landfill dump. It stuck with me in a very negative way. We’re burying waste and making these hills of garbage.”

A major reason the recycling rate is so dismal nationally, and especially in Tennessee, is confusion. Industry experts readily admit the conflicting information doled out by various municipalities and advocates make would-be recyclers throw up their hands and head for the trash cans.

And then there are those people who practice what’s called “wish-cycling.” They just toss everything in recycling bins, hoping that it can be recycled.

The education consumers should be getting about recycling is not only the environmental impact it has, but also the economic driver that makes it a $4.5 billion business in Tennessee.

Getting the word out

Tennessee has 95 counties and 347 incorporated municipalities. Not all of them have recycling facilities, but those that do have a confusing list of what can and can’t be recycled.

In Davidson County, for example, you can recycle a plastic bottle, jar or jug, but not a plastic produce container. You can across the Williamson County line.

In Nashville and Chattanooga, you can only recycle glass by dropping it off at a recycling center. In Knox County, you can’t recycle glass at all.

“Our messaging about what to recycle and how to recycle leaves a lot for improvement,” says Will Sagar, executive director with the Southeast Recycling Development Council.

A few years ago, the SERDC worked with the Tennessee Economic Development Council to survey how various counties and municipalities informed the public about recycling. “What we did find was how poor the messaging is in Tennessee,” Sagar says. “Some of these websites looked like they were done in the mid ’90s.”

A solution was creating a modern playing field.

“We created a platform for messaging with some modern graphics and we built a domain for that and we offered it to any municipality in Tennessee so that they could have their own personal page in that domain,” he says.

The confusion between what can be recycled and what can’t also contributes to contaminating good materials with bad. That’s where “wish-cycling” comes in. People want to believe that items they use on a daily basis, like plastic grocery bags, are recyclable, so into the bins they go.

“The biggest issue is that people think that all plastics are created equal, and that’s just not accurate,” says Brandi Prewitt, director of development and communications for the Tennessee Environmental Council. “It’s true in all areas of Tennessee that do have single streaming recycling that plastic bags are the No. 1 contaminant. The reason they have a big sign saying no plastic bags is because people keep putting them in there.”

One of the reasons for the flawed messaging is in the act of recycling itself. It can change from one day to the next.

How recycling works

For the consumer, recycling is an act of environmental conscience. For city and county governments, it’s a revenue stream. And for companies that actually do the recycling, it’s a $4.5 billion business in Tennessee.

Cities and counties are just collectors of recycled materials. They then turn around and, when possible, sell them to recycling companies. The reason that can change in a matter of days is that some materials are in high demand one day but not so much the next.

“We have some really clear economic incentives,” says Drew Thurman, the solid waste policy and planning manager for Knox County. “We know it’s going to the right places. An aluminum can is infinitely recyclable. Paper will quickly end up in industrial toilet paper or the brown paper towels. Cardboard, as long as the economy is cooking, everything is packaged in cardboard because there’s a demand for it. The minute they get it they turn it back into cardboard boxes. The pandemic really increased that.”

While the payback fluctuates depending on what recyclable materials are in demand, Thurman says last year Knox County broke $1 million in revenue.

“Our total budget is about $4 million, so a quarter of our operation is offset by recycling revenue.” Thurman emphasizes commodity prices are volatile, so next year the same amount of material might only be worth $200,000.

Sagar of SERDC says the market for some recyclables is strong right now.

“Over the last two years we’ve been setting a lot of records on prices,” he says. “There’s a lot of demand for material, and it’s continuing to expand. Our markets are going to be in good shape for some time to come. Aluminum cans. Steel cans. Cardboard is doing very well. Cardboard has been a key material in the recycling stream for decades.

“Mixed paper has a very strong market. High-density polyethylene containers. Anything that has the number 2 on the bottom.”

One word

A famous exchange from the Oscar-winning 1967 film “The Graduate,” a conversation between a savvy business owner and a newly minted college grad, hailed the future of business: Plastics.

Back then, the future of plastics certainly wasn’t a given. Today, about 37 million tons of plastic are used in the U.S. every year. And what happens to it after its useful life is a matter of contention and debate in the recycling world.

There are many compositions of plastic. That’s why plastic bottles and containers have a symbol on the bottom with a number in the middle. Here’s what those numbers mean:

No. 1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE). It’s found in drink and water bottles and food jars and is widely recyclable.

No. 2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE). Shampoo bottles and milk jugs carry this designation and also are highly recyclable.

No. 3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, Vinyl) used in food containers and shrink wrap. It can rarely be recycled.

No. 4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE). It’s found in shopping bags, dry cleaning bags and paper milk container coating. Sometimes recyclable, sometimes not.

No. 5: Polypropylene (PP). Yogurt containers and medicine bottles are made with it. Again, sometimes recyclable, sometimes not.

No. 6: Polystyrene (PS). Cups, plates and takeout containers are commonly made with it. Sometimes recyclable, sometimes not.

No. 7: “Other,” including oven-baking bags and reusable water jugs. It’s on the not-so-much list.

Most recycling centers only take No. 1 and 2 plastics.

Recycling companies don’t pay much, if anything, for plastics because they’re costly to recycle and, often, cheaper to manufacture new. Unlike aluminum cans that can be endlessly recycled, plastics only get to go around once or, at best, twice. And then it’s off to the landfill.

At least, opponents of plastic look at it that way.

“It breaks our heart to see an aluminum can on the side of the road or in a trash can,” Prewitt says. “With plastic, we’ve been encouraging people to work toward zero waste and eliminate single-use plastics from their lives from the beginning instead of relying on recycling them as a solution. Because even when plastic is successfully recycled, you can only recycle it one or two times. It’s not like aluminum that can be infinitely recycled.

“With plastic, you’re just delaying it ultimately going to a landfill.”

Others have a different view of where the plastic might go.

“That next life is typically fiber,” Sagar says. “The carpet under your feet has soda bottles in it. The clothing in your closet has soda bottles in it. The plastic bottles in the recycling bin could have another life as a bottle or it could wind up in carpet.

“Carpet recycling is actually growing. If the bottle gets in the recycling bin, it will get another life.”

While No. 1 and 2 plastics are widely accepted, Knox County has taken a different approach. It will take it all, no matter the number. Thurman wants to encourage participation in the recycling program, and he doesn’t want the consumer to have to work too hard to get there.

“We have a contract with a company that separates the various plastic and sells it to whoever is going to use it,” he says. “They only want the plastic numbers 1 and 2. That’s a lot of work for people to look at the bottom of the thing. We don’t want people to have to learn resin codes. We want them to get in the behavior of recycling.

“The converse is if we are not collecting those there’s never a chance to get things recycled,” he says. What if there is a time when other plastic numbers are eligible for recycling? Thurman is happy to be prepared.

A sense of conscience

At the end of the day, most people recycle because they’d rather give items another useful life than throw them out.

“Even as a child, I wondered where all that garbage went,” says Eunice Zhou, who recycles in Brentwood. “So it was something on my mind. And then, after getting married, we lived in a house in Davidson County and we had a garbage tote and we started filling it up with recycling. And I was amazed how small our garbage was afterward.

“We had this small kitchen garbage bag full of garbage. It was amazing to see how much could be recycled.”

For Olympia Lamuno, just having recycling facilities nearby made it a no-brainer. “I’ve been doing it for years,” she says. “When I first moved to Nashville in 2001, I lived in Green Hills and there was a recycling center there that was accessible. When I moved to Brentwood in 2004, there’s so many recycling centers I could go to. It’s just part of my routine.”