Last updated on September 1, 2020.
Learning how to recycle is easy, at least on the surface. But what happens to recycling after I put it in the blue bin? In my city, I can read the rules on recycling (do I remove lids?, do I clean items?, etc.) but I realized that I don’t know what happens to that recycling after it leaves my house. And the answers to simple questions aren’t clear.
Glass wasn’t really recycled in Chattanooga
The City of Chattanooga has had some problems with recycling in the past. For at least 4 years, our glass was not getting 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, and at first I had trouble verifying if it is recycled today. (UPDATE: It is recycled from the five city recycling centers! See part 2).
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 set on the curb where trash bins were placed. Certain materials such as glass, shredded paper, and numbered plastics #3-#7 were not accepted. 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.
Increased use of glass
The city issued the large 96-gallon blue bins in the Fall of 2014. Shortly after, the City notified residents that it would accept glass curbside. I was excited, and for 4 years, I rinsed and placed my glass in the bin. During this time, I discovered that in general, plastic is not really recycled, glass is infinitely more recyclable than plastic, and glass is safer than plastics when it comes to food and beverage consumption. So I was using more glass than ever and recycling it curbside.
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 recycling options for glass in the future. This information was also in the local news. 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 on 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.” The City should have sent mailers out then and not waited two and a half more years to stop accepting glass curbside if there was no way to properly handle it.
Orange Grove & WestRock
It was explained in a 2015 Chattanooga Times Free Press article that the glass was not recycled because the “Orange Grove Center…isn’t equipped to remove broken glass from the curbside containers’ mix of paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, plastic bags and metal cans.” Orange Grove workers were separating the city’s recycling manually and the broken glass was causing injuries.
It is not clear when WestRock, previously RockTenn, began contracting with the City of Chattanooga to process recycling, but Orange Grove and WestRock worked together for a time. WestRock does have machinery that sorts the glass out of the mix of recyclables, but they couldn’t sell it profitably, according to Mike Fitzgerald of WestRock. So the crushed glass was used as landfill cover. “‘We’re having a tough time getting rid of it,’ Fitzgerald said.” The same article also indicated that there was some unawareness, perhaps even apathy, about what happens to our recycling after it leaves the curb. The Public Works Director at the time wasn’t aware that glass put into the city’s blue curbside containers wasn’t being recycled after delivery to Orange Grove, which seems odd.
In 2015, Orange Grove realized they needed to upgrade their sorting equipment for all materials, especially since curbside recycling in the city had almost doubled. But they need $1.6 million to do so. A few foundations donated, the City of Chattanooga provided $250,000, and Hamilton County declined to provide any funds. But wait, isn’t this City recycling? Shouldn’t the City just pay for that? It must have been more efficient to transfer all recycling processing to WestRock, a larger Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), than it was to upgrade Orange Grove. The latter also changed their direction in 2016 to focus on more community-based services.
Today, all curbside recycling in Chattanooga is processed by WestRock.
Write a letter!
I’ve always heard that if you’re unhappy with something, you should write a letter. So I wrote a strongly worded email to the City of Chattanooga’s Department of Public Works, expressing my disappointment and asking a few questions about why this went on for so long.
Here is the response I received:
Sorry for the delay and thank you for contacting the City of Chattanooga, Department of Public Works. Your feedback is very much appreciated. Every response to the survey helps us create a solution that will be beneficial to not only you, but for the City and our environment.
Each survey and every email is read and notes are taken on the feedback. Please continue to reach out with any other suggestions or concerns. We appreciate you and hope you have a wonderful day!
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, what could possibly be the motive for that? Could it be that a city like Chattanooga wants to market itself as a greener community than it actually is? Perhaps it is because the goal is to attract new small and large 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.”
Another speculation – because that’s all I have right now – is that the City of Chattanooga has an agreement with WestRock and their agreement indicates that all materials must be collected. Perhaps then the City can say it accepts all major materials for recycling, and what happens to it after that is not their business or problem.*
But this got me thinking and worrying about recycling in general. What else in our city isn’t getting recycled?
Through a series of inquiries about recycling in Chattanooga, I found my way to a representative at WestRock. I requested an interview and tour of the recycling facility and sent a list of questions after speaking with them on the phone. One of my specific questions was:
“How does glass get recycled in our city? It seems that Orange Grove used to separate glass and that it was causing injuries. Since Westrock is handling the glass processing now, is glass getting recycled? I read an article in the newspaper that indicated that Westrock has been unable to find a market for it and they’re using it as landfill cover. I just want to know what’s really happening to the glass.”
The representative has been professional and somewhat responsive, but I have not received any answers to my specific questions about recycling. Nor have they responded about a tour or an interview. It’s my hope that those requests will be granted in the future and I can update this post!
I really want people to understand that recycling alone is not the solution, and that reducing and refusing waste is key. If we all reduce and refuse and don’t focus on recycling alone, we can make a difference.
What do you think? Do you think our glass is getting recycled now? Have you ever toured a recycling facility? Let me know by leaving a comment below. Thank you for reading, and let’s be the change! Please read Part 2.
*UPDATE: It turns out that the collection of all types of recyclables is due to a city ordinance. Section 18-52.e requires that the city collects all eligible materials: “Eligible curbside recyclable materials include all clean aluminum cans, cardboard, paper products, plastics stamped one (1) through seven (7), tin cans, and food packaging.” The updated ordinance lists glass as a recycling contaminant, but I imagine before that glass was included. Note that only plastics #1 and #2 are recycled in Chattanooga and the rest are collected but landfilled instead of recycled. I found this WestRock information sheet which lists their general recommendations for single-stream collection: