Have you seen WALL-E?

Last updated on February 5, 2023.

Wall-E cover art

Have you seen the Disney-Pixar movie WALL-E? It features two cute little robots that mostly communicate through a few words and voice inflections. There’s very little dialogue so the story is told visually and beautifully. I found it to be a powerful movie. Here’s the trailer for it:

I first saw this movie about a year ago. I borrowed it from the library so that I could watch it with my son, and I was really blown away by the film! The day after, I was talking to a colleague about it and he told me that he can gauge a person by their reaction to that movie. He said if they’re indifferent about it, that’s likely how they are about the environment as well. But if a person reacts emotionally, it says a lot about them. While you can’t judge a person by a single film reaction, of course, that conversation has always stuck in my mind.

There’s a lot about WALL-E that stuck with me.

So I watched it again over the weekend.

Please note: the rest of this post does contain spoilers. So if you haven’t watched it, please go watch it and then come back and finish reading this post!

Wall-E, Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash.

Even though it’s a decade old already, it’s still completely relevant. WALL-E is cleaning up the trash on Earth, which has become one giant wasteland and landfill. Humans made so much trash and polluted the air so badly that all of the plant life died off and they had to move to space! It takes place 700 years in the future. The little robot is lonely and has only one friend, a little cockroach (because cockroaches can survive everything, right?).

He finds interesting objects while cleaning up the trash, such as silverware, Zippo lighters, and Rubik’s cubes. The robot discovers a squeaky dog toy and a bra, which he mistakes for a mask. He catalogs and sorts the items in his home (like Ariel does in The Little Mermaid, collecting items from shipwrecks and keeping them in her secret cove.) WALL-E even has one of the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques that were popular years ago. He has recovered one videotape of Hello, Dolly! from the late 1960s, from which he learns about emotions and human interactions.

rubiks cube, Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash.

The air is cloudy, there’s very little water and no plant life. The whole premise of the movie is that once plant life reappears on Earth, humans can return. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot that has come to Earth to search for plant life. He finds a plant and gives it to her as a token of love. But this is her own mission and it spawns a journey that lays out the history of corporate greed, mass consumerism, and the unsustainable disposable economy and lifestyle that humans created. So much stuff and waste that the Earth became polluted and uninhabitable.

That sounds like the path we’re on right now.

plant, Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash.

Sadly, in the movie, the humans, once in space, did not change their behaviors. They rocketed their trash further into space instead of learning from the past. This behavior was propelled by corporate giant B&L, a fictional sort of Walmart or Amazon that gained a monopoly on Earth and gained control of everything by the time the humans left for space.

This movie really hit home.

Truly, though, if robots can get it, why can’t we?

I think many of us do get it. I think the more people that learn about the worldwide waste crisis, the more people will want to change things. So help spread the word and educate others. Let your children watch this movie. Share it with a friend. Leave me a comment below. And thanks for reading!

Support “The Story of Plastic”

Last updated on April 23, 2023.

Rows and rows of yellow rubber duckies on shelves.
Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash.

Update 4/23/2023: This film was released in April 2020 and premiered on the Discovery Channel on April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This is an informative and well-presented film on plastics – I highly recommend it!

Have you ever heard of The Story of Stuff? It’s a 20-minute film (linked below) that is “a fast-paced, fact-filled explanation of the consumerist economy.” It began with the writer and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, Annie Leonard. She’s an amazing person and a leader in environmental and social issues. It is 100% worth your time to watch!

The Story of Story Project has since come out with more than a dozen high-quality short documentary films that explain the relationship between consumer products and environmental problems. But their newest one is really exciting!!! It’s called…

The Story of Plastic

“These days, more and more of our Stuff is being made from one very problematic material: plastic.

They want to tell the hidden stories surrounding plastic. The production, the pollution, and the health hazards. Here’s the trailer:

Do we need another film about plastic?

Yes, we do. There aren’t enough of them. The ones that do exist are really good and the message is getting out, but we need even more people to hear and see and understand the message: Plastic is ruining our environment, poisoning us (cancer, endocrine and thyroid diseases, etc.), and littering our landscapes. The Earth is so beautiful – don’t we want it to stay that way?

And recycling is not the answer. Only 9% of our plastic is actually getting recycled! That means 91% is ending up in landfills, the ocean, rivers and lakes, beaches, parks, and our neighborhoods. It even ends up in the food we eat and the water we drink.

plastic bottles, rope, and other waste on the beach.
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash.

The Story of Stuff Project is fundraising to complete this project. Please help me support this worthy cause. They are asking people to become “a Plastic Insider by starting a recurring monthly donation supporting The Story of Plastic production fund today.” There are insider perks: your name will be in the credits of the film and you gain access to behind-the-scenes videos. Here’s a video of supporters who spend their lives on a sailboat:

I signed up as a monthly, recurring donor today. Can you help too? You can also make a one-time donation in any amount you’d like. And if you’re really ambitious, you can create your own Facebook fundraiser!

“The Story of Plastic isn’t just a movie. It’s a call to action.”

Are you as excited about this film as I am? Leave a comment below! Thank you for reading.


Additional Resources:

Website, how to watch The Story of Plastic

Film, The Story of Stuff

How Glass Recycling Works (or Doesn’t Work) in Chattanooga, TN

Last updated on October 9, 2022.

glass bottles, Photo by SatyaPrem on Pixabay
Photo by SatyaPrem on Pixabay.

Recycling is easy, at least on the surface. But what happens to recycling after we put it in the blue bin? In my city, I can read the rules on recycling through the city’s curbside service, but I realized that I don’t know what happens to that recycling after it leaves my house. And the answers to simple questions are not clear.

The City of Chattanooga has had some problems with recycling in the past. Glass is not accepted through curbside recycling, but glass brought to the five recycling centers in Chattanooga is recycled.

For a time, glass wasn’t really recycled in Chattanooga

I used to take all of my recyclables to the recycling centers around town before signing up for Chattanooga curbside recycling in 2011. Recyclables had to go in clear or blue plastic bags and then be set on the curb where trash bins were placed. Certain materials such as glass, shredded paper, and numbered plastics #3-#7 were not accepted then. My family took our glass to the recycling center every couple of weeks. It wasn’t a big deal, nor was it a hassle. I was happy to do my part.

Glass recycling, photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay
Glass recycling, photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

The city first issued the large 96-gallon blue bins in Fall 2014. Shortly after, the City notified residents that it would accept glass curbside. I was excited, and for 4 years, I rinsed and deposited my glass in the bin. During this time, I discovered that in general, plastic has a low recycling rate. But glass is infinitely more recyclable. I also learned that glass is safer than plastics when it comes to food and beverage consumption. So I began using far more glass than plastic and recycling it curbside.

But during those 4 years, our glass wasn’t really being recycled even though residents dutifully cleaned it, sorted it, and placed it in the blue curbside bins. It turns out that that glass was being landfilled.

No more curbside glass recycling

In January 2018, city residents received a postcard from the City of Chattanooga announcing that they would no longer accept glass in curbside recycling. The postcard requested residents to participate in a survey about glass recycling options in the future.1 Residents would still be able to take their glass to the recycling centers around the city. I thought this was weird, so I looked into it.

Glass was going to the landfill

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported this January 2018:

“The postcard says glass put into curbside recycling bins is likely to break, mixing with other recycling and making it difficult to sort. That means the entire contents of the bin would end up in the landfill. It’s an ongoing problem. The city added glass to its curbside recycling around the fall of 2014 after it introduced the 96-gallon blue bins. But in August 2015, the Times Free Press reported the glass — and the other recyclables with it in the bins — was being landfilled because it was too dangerous to sort.”2

The City should not have waited four years to stop accepting glass curbside if there was no way to properly handle it. Some, like myself, did not see this article in 2015, so I continued depositing my glass into the curbside bin. I emailed the city about my disappointment but I only received an auto-reply type of response.

Brown glass bottles in one large bin.
Photo by Bart Heirdon on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Orange Grove & WestRock

According to a 2015 Chattanooga Times Free Press article, the glass was not recycled because the local separation center, Orange Grove, “isn’t equipped to remove broken glass from the curbside containers’ mix of paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, plastic bags and metal cans.” Their workers were separating the city’s recycling by hand and the broken glass was causing injuries.3 This means the city did not yet have adequate infrastructure to deal with a growing curbside recycling service.

At some point, WestRock (previously RockTenn) took over the contract with the City of Chattanooga to process recycling, but for a time, Orange Grove and WestRock worked together. WestRock, a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), does have machinery that sorts the glass out of the mix of recyclables, but they couldn’t sell it profitably, according to a manager at WestRock. So the crushed glass was used as landfill cover. “‘We’re having a tough time getting rid of it,’ he stated.” The city’s Public Works Director at the time wasn’t aware that glass put into the city’s blue curbside containers wasn’t being recycled, which seems odd.

In 2015, Orange Grove realized they needed to upgrade their sorting equipment for all materials since curbside recycling in Chattanooga had almost doubled by then. But they needed $1.6 million to do so. They tried to fundraise and a few foundations donated by the local county government declined to assist. The City of Chattanooga provided $250,000. But since this is a city service, shouldn’t the City of Chattanooga pay for that?

In the end, it must have been more efficient to transfer all recycling processing to WestRock than it was to upgrade the Orange Grove center. Further, Orange Grove changed their direction in 2016 to focus on more community-based services. But they still staff the City of Chattanooga’s five recycling centers and three refuse centers.

Today, all curbside recycling in Chattanooga is processed by WestRock.

Why would a city “recycle” something they can’t actually recycle?

If a city or municipality isn’t really recycling something they claim to recycle, it may be because a city like Chattanooga wants to market itself as a greener community than it actually is. Or the goal may be to attract new businesses, entrepreneurs, developers, and young educated people who like the outdoors and sustainable living. Additionally, perhaps Chattanooga wants to get as far away as possible from its past perception as the “dirtiest city in America.”

The Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect recycling, but it does not promise to make sure it is recycled. “Eligible curbside recyclable materials include all clean aluminum cans, cardboard, paper products, plastics stamped one (1) through seven (7), tin cans, and food packaging.” As of 2021, an updated ordinance lists glass as a recycling contaminant, but I believe before that glass was listed.4 Note that only plastics #1 and #2 are recycled in Chattanooga and the rest are collected but landfilled instead of actually recycled.

Clear glass bin at one of the recycling centers in Chattanooga.
Clear glass bin at one of the recycling centers in Chattanooga. Photo by Marie Cullis.


Questions About Glass Recycling

Through a series of inquiries about recycling, I found my way to a representative at WestRock and asked specific questions about if and how glass was being recycled. The representative was professional and somewhat responsive, but I did not receive answers to my questions. Since the City’s Recycling Department was not helpful either, I ended up contacting the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC). Through them found my way to a company called Strategic Materials, a member of GRC. I was able to speak to the Vice President of Marketing & Communications, Laura Hennemann, and she confirmed that glass from Chattanooga’s recycling centers goes directly to their Atlanta facility and is recycled.

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition

Strategic Materials is the largest glass recycling company in North America, and they have nearly 50 facilities nationwide. Three of those are in Georgia. Both Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition try to teach that glass is 100% recyclable. They help educate residents and consumers, materials recovery facilities (MRFs), local governments and municipalities, and solid waste haulers. The Glass Recycling Coalition’s 2018 survey concluded that 93% of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass, so obviously, it’s important to people.5

Recycling is extremely complex. If you want to read specifically about how glass recycling works, you can read my articles on glass recycling.

Green glass bottles, photo by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay
Photo by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

How recycling works in Chattanooga

The Public Works Department in the City of Chattanooga manages garbage and single-stream recycling (meaning all materials mixed together) curbside collection through the Solid Waste and Recycling Division. City employees operate the equipment and run the daily routes, and the City of Chattanooga owns and maintains the trucks. The trucks deliver the materials to our materials recovery facility (MRF), WestRock. The primary purpose of a MRF is to sort materials. WestRock takes the recycling materials, sorts them, and sells the materials to recyclers.

Box produced by WestRock, that someone shipped to me from a recent purchase.
Box produced by WestRock. Photo by Marie Cullis.

WestRock is the primary MRF for much of the Southeast U.S. They are a paper recycling company first, so paper and cardboard recovery are their number one motivation when it comes to materials recovery.

The glass that residents take to the five recycling centers in Chattanooga does get recycled directly by Strategic Materials in Atlanta. While residents sort glass by color at the recycling centers in Chattanooga, Strategic Materials said that this isn’t necessary because they have an optical sorter in their Atlanta facility, which sorts the glass by color. Chattanooga has not updated its signage, so the separate bins at the centers remain.

Glass recycling bins at one of the Chattanooga recycling centers.
Glass recycling bins at one of the Chattanooga recycling centers. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Glass causes problems without the right sorting equipment

WestRock, as do many MRFs, asserts that they do not have the ability to sort the glass broken before it reaches their facility, citing damage to their conveyor belts and machinery. The glass can also contaminate the rest of the recycling materials at the MRFs’ facilities. There are several types of contamination, but in this case, it refers to the broken glass pieces mixing in with the rest of the materials and they are difficult to separate out.

That’s why residents in Chattanooga are no longer able to place glass in the curbside bins. If you still are, please stop. It is a wasted effort because it’s going to the landfill and likely causing a bunch of other recyclables to go into the landfill as well. Keep in mind that curbside glass from between 2014 and 2018 was already landfilled. So rinse your glass, save it all in a box, and run it to the recycling center every couple of weeks.

One of several bins of glass I brought to recycle, as I collect from two households. Photo by me.
One of several bins of glass I brought to recycle, as I collect from two households. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Are there solutions for the MRFs?

Yes. There is special machinery that can sort the glass pieces from single-stream recycling systems, but it is a major capital investment for the MRFs. So they often landfill the glass instead.

Another solution is to collect glass separately, curbside. Chattanooga surveyed almost 4,000 residents about glass. Most said they were willing to use a separate curbside bin for glass, but they were not willing to pay an extra fee for it. Over half of the respondents were also not willing to haul their glass to the recycling centers.6 That means a lot of glass is being thrown in the trash.

Many articles, including the one that revealed the Chattanooga glass survey results, indicate that the market for glass is extremely low. Laura Hennemann at Strategic Materials said that this just isn’t the case. There is a huge market for glass.

My son recycling glass with me at one of the local recycling centers, 2018. He is tossing a glass jar into the large bin.
My son recycling glass with me at one of the local recycling centers, 2018. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Despite the issues, keep trying

Recycling alone is not the solution. Reducing and refusing waste is the key.

Glass is 100% recyclable. Glass is a better option than plastic, as far as waste is concerned. In a worst-case scenario, I’d rather have glass in landfills (and oceans) instead of plastic. Why? Because plastic leaches toxins into the water and poisons marine life. Plastic releases chemicals known to cause cancer or other health problems. Glass does not contain these chemicals. So I’m going to keep purchasing products in glass over plastic, every time. Especially since I don’t want chemicals from those plastics in my family’s food.

I’ll also keep taking my glass to the recycling center because I am able and willing to take the time. So I’m asking you to do the same – bring your glass to one of the five recycling centers. If you can’t do it, maybe a friend can drop yours off when they take theirs. For example, I take my in-law’s glass for them every few weeks. I’m happy to do it. What about starting a little co-op of glass recycling in your neighborhood, or at work? Everyone takes a turn, and the glass gets recycled.

Do you have questions or comments or ideas? Please share with me by leaving a comment below!

Thank you for reading. Please recycle, share, and subscribe!


Have you heard about Litterati?

Last updated on February 12, 2023.

Photo of a discarded blue plastic laundry detergent bottle (it actually looks like a Downy bottle) on the ground, by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.
Photo of a discarded plastic laundry detergent bottle on the ground, by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.

Have you ever been out walking, hiking, biking, or even kayaking and noticed that there was trash here and there, everywhere? Noticed trash lining the streets as you drove to work or school? Or the debris that just seems to have washed up while walking on the beach or riverbank?

What do you do? Do you pick it up?

If so, there’s an app for that. It’s called Litterati.

Litterati app logo, blue with L surrounded by a diamond shaped line.
Litterati app.

This app tracks litter that people all over the world pick up, and it compiles the data by location in order to pinpoint the source of the litter. With this app you take a photo of each piece of litter with your smartphone, then pick it up and discard it. You can get really artistic with your photos, too. Litterati features the most interesting and creative photos on Instagram.

The Data

Photos are automatically geotagged, meaning information about the exact location and time of pick-up is recorded. Additionally, users hashtag each image with information such as the brand, object name, and type of material.

Photo of a discarded Coca-Cola can on the ground, by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash.
Photo of a discarded Coca-Cola can on the ground, by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash.

That data is loaded into an ArcGIS map to help track and create data to help diagnose the root cause of litter in any given area.1 As Litterati’s website explains:

“Litterati then compiles that cleanup data into a robust database of litter maps around the world. Using your tagged cleanup photos, the Litterati team can ask questions such as, ‘How does the weather affect the types of litter thrown?’ and ‘Are there more cigarette butts littered near bus stops?’.”2 

Jeff Kirschner, the founder of Litterati, explained in a TED Talk why he created the app:

Join Us!

I joined this effort in March 2017, and I love it! I’ve used it in my neighborhood, while hiking, on my son’s school grounds, at the dog park, and at the beach. We pick up trash whenever we feel we can safely collect it and discard it. It is really satisfying to know we are making a difference and teaching my son by example.

Consistent Growth

You can join or create clubs and daily they list the top 5 people with the most activity. I made that list twice and it made my day!

In May 2018, the United Nations announced that they are partnering with Litterati to fight world pollution.3 

While Litterati is using its data and mapping for great changes, Jeff Kirschner is still looking to inspire people. “How do we deliver a wonderful experience for each community member so that they’re inspired to pick up just one more piece, and then one more?”4 And then spread the word, build community, and inspire others. Wouldn’t it be cool if picking up trash and keeping our Earth clean became the new normal?

Thank you for reading, and let’s be the change!

A few of my own Litterati photos: