You Don’t Need to Spend Money on Trash Bags

Earth globe in a blue plastic bag
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I haven’t bought trash bags in more than four years.

How on Earth is that possible? I can’t wait to tell you!

Paying for trash

Garbage bag, Image by cocoparisienne on Pixabay.
Image by cocoparisienne on Pixabay

We are intentionally paying for something we are going to throw away.

We all pay for garbage removal in some form, whether through municipal or property taxes or through a waste management service. On top of that, the traditionally accepted way of containing this trash is single-use plastic trash bags. We pay for new plastic bags, made from fossil fuels, to deposit and remove waste from our homes.

Every time consumers purchase plastic, we are supporting the plastics industry and fueling the effort to harvest more fossil fuels. Then we take those bags we paid for and put them in the ground. We are paying to throw stuff away.

“The first plastic garbage bag was produced in 1950. Globally, these bags collect 7.4 million tons of waste each day.”1

I’ve saved quite a bit of money by not buying trash bags. Trash bags range from $4 per box up to $12 per box depending on size, strength, flexibility, and even scent. Advertisers want you to believe that the most expensive trash bags will keep your home clean and sanitary. This is not a new trend, but one that has been accelerated by companies such as Glad Products (owned by Clorox) who conducted surveys and discovered that many Americans believe any bad smell means their home is dirty (or rather, fear that other people will think they’re house is dirty). Worse, scented trash bags likely contain phthalates (commonly referred to as “fragrances”) which are usually endocrine and hormone disruptors that can cause serious health problems over time. These scents may mask the odor of your garbage, but at what cost to your health?

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Another marketing trend to be aware of is “biodegradable” or bioplastic trash bags. Don’t be fooled. Nothing, including these bags, breaks down in a landfill. They require an industrial composting facility to biodegrade. “There’s also no telling if harmful additives or chemicals were added during the manufacturing process, and not all bags labeled biodegradable or compostable will actually break down in a compost facility.”2 Recycled plastic trash bags are better than new or ‘virgin’ plastic bags, but I still do not buy these for my home. 

“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition. They are dry and anaerobic spaces that essentially ‘mummify’ anything contained in them, including plastic.”3 

But now you can stop buying them too.

Necessity

Three years ago, it occurred to me that I was wasting money buying bags just to put in a landfill. Then I read a blog article on myplasticfreelife.com and decided that there really is no need for store-bought plastic garbage bags. “Since we make almost zero trash, and the trash we do make is dry, we don’t have any need for bags to collect it,” the author wrote.[efn_note]Article, “Collecting Garbage Without Plastic Trash Bags?” myplasticfreelife.com, February 15, 2010.[/efn_note] I found that once I eliminated wet garbage, I no longer needed plastic garbage bags.

What is wet garbage?

This mostly refers to food scraps and food waste. If you are able to compost through a municipal service like the ones they have in California, please do so. However, many cities and states do not offer this service as part of their waste management plan, including where we live. My family decided to start our own compost bin, which you can read about here. If you start composting, you will not have wet trash and thus will not need a plastic liner. Best of all, except for the initial cost of implementing a compost bin, composting is free! If you are paying for waste removal directly, you can reduce the amount of trash and frequency of pick-ups (thus cost savings) simply by composting.

About 34% of our waste is food scraps, yard trimmings, and other biological waste.

Waste reduction

We’ve noticed that many neighbors fill their 96-gallon city-issued garbage bin almost every week. We’ve only filled ours once, and that was when we had a major bathroom remodel in our home. But every city household is allotted a 96-gallon garbage bin that is picked up weekly. I haven’t done the exact math, but I believe that that is between 8 and 12 million gallons of garbage per week that our just our city is potentially landfilling.

This must stop. Our globe cannot sustain this level of trash.

Full 96-gallon city issued garbage bin
City-issued 96-gallon garbage bin, full with a week’s worth of trash from a single household. Photo by me

My family reduced our waste by buying food and other items with as little packaging as possible. We eliminated single-use disposable items and recycled what we could. Striving to be plastic-free and live a minimalist lifestyle reduced our overall trash. With these efforts, combined with composting, our garbage volume went down to about one bag of trash per month!

One bag of trash per month is far from our zero-waste goal, but it’s much less compared to most households. And Chattanooga is not zero-waste friendly.

Black garbage bag with the phrase, "Where does the garbage go?"
“Where Does the Garbage Go?” by Colin Dunn on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Is Trash-Bag Free Possible?

It depends on how much trash you create, where you live, and how trash is transported. Some municipalities require garbage to be bagged. I wanted to stop using trash bags completely. But what I discovered with our city waste haulers is that unbagged garbage tends to either not make it into the trucks and falls on the ground in the neighborhood, or it blows out of the truck while they are driving down the road. In fact, I saw it happening so often that I tried to report the incidents to the city. But I could not obtain enough information about specific trucks while driving to provide good reporting, so nothing came of that. Pay attention to the waste hauling trucks in your area, or call your local municipality and find out if they have measures in place to help prevent these problems.

Back of garbage truck
This garbage truck lost several pieces of trash as I went down the same road, mainly lightweight plastic pieces. The Tennessee River flows through Chattanooga and any waste that gets into the river ends up in the ocean. Photo by me (at a stoplight).

Trash Bag Alternatives

I let our house run out of garbage bags three years ago and haven’t bought any since. However, since we have to use some kind of trash bag, just to keep our trash contained after it is picked up by the city, we use anything that resembles a garbage bag and staple them closed when it is full to prevent spillage. You can use anything! The most common of these includes:

      • Brown paper bags from the grocery store
      • Empty dog food bags
      • Large shopping bags that show up (even though we always use our own cloth bags at the store, these still manage to make their way into my home from shipping, other people, etc.)
      • Mulch and gravel bags (this is hard to buy in bulk where we live unless you own a truck)
      • Foil insulation bags (these are from Amazon/Whole Foods – during COVID-19 we had to get grocery store delivery for a while, and this was how they delivered our cold items. We have a couple of dozen of these now and they are not recyclable.)
      • Make your own DIY trash bags out of shipping envelopes

I also loved finding a use for these items. It felt wrong to buy a trash bag to throw away more bags or paying to bag the bags.

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Looking Forward

I would like to further reduce my waste through less and better packaging, improved zero waste capabilities, striving for plastic-free living, and minimalism. Ideally, someday, I won’t have so many shipping envelopes around. It would be better if I could purchase items in person and locally, which will take not only getting past the pandemic but businesses increasing package-free/plastic-free/zero-waste options in our area as well.

So free yourself from this practice of buying new plastic to almost directly put in the ground. You can stop paying for trash bags today, and use whatever bags come into your home. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

How Recycling Works (or Doesn’t Work) in Chattanooga, TN: Part 2: Glass

Last updated on September 1, 2020.

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

In a recent post, I filled you in on the recent history of glass recycling problems in Chattanooga. One of my concerned readers contacted me, asking me to confirm what I had written: that the glass we bring to the recycling centers in Chattanooga may not be getting recycled. I have since been able to confirm that glass brought to the recycling centers in Chattanooga IS getting recycled.

How did I find out?

The answer was not obtained through the City of Chattanooga’s Recycling Department, nor WestRock, our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). No one from the City even referred me to the right person or company. I was able to speak to the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Strategic Materials, Laura Hennemann, last week, 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. I got in touch with Hennemann by contacting the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC), of which Strategic Materials is a member. The GRC, formed in 2016, “brings together a diverse membership of companies and organizations to make glass recycling work: glass manufacturers, haulers, processors, materials recovery facilities, capital markets, end markets and brands that use glass to showcase their products.” They encourage MRFs to become members. WestRock is not a listed member.

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition hope to educate everyone on glass recycling because glass is 100% recyclable. They want to educate residents and consumers, MRFs, local governments and municipalities, and solid waste haulers. They helped me so that I can help others understand the glass recycling process.

The Glass Recycling Coalition’s 2018 survey concluded that 93% of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass, so we know it’s important to people. I don’t believe people know about the issues in recent years with glass recycling in Chattanooga. I sure didn’t until I began researching it!

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

Recycling is extremely complex

In general, recycling beyond the blue curbside bin is extremely complicated. It has taken me weeks to understand, and I still don’t know all of it. I also cannot summarize all of the information in one single post. Today I’ll explain our local system and how glass is processed here.

In a future post, I’ll cover how glass recycling in general works. (UPDATE: Read Part 1 and Part 2 on glass recycling).

How recycling works in Chattanooga

The Public Works Department in the City of Chattanooga manages garbage and recycling 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.

We have what is termed single-stream recycling for curbside pick-up in Chattanooga. Single-stream recycling means that all recycling is mixed together in the 96-gallon blue bins, and those bins are collected by trucks who deliver the materials to our MRF, WestRock. The primary purpose of MRFs is to sort materials. WestRock takes the recycling materials, sorts them, and sells sends the materials on to the facility that purchases those materials.

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

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.

I was able to confirm through the Public Works Department that the sorting from curbside used to be separated by Orange Grove, but now sorting from curbside is handled solely by WestRock. Orange Grove is still involved with the recycling centers, in that it staffs the City of Chattanooga’s five recycling centers as well as the three refuse centers.

As mentioned above, the glass that residents take to the five recycling centers in Chattanooga does get recycled! It is directly recycled 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 can accept mixed color bottle glass. They have an optical sorter in their Atlanta facility, which sorts the glass by color. Chattanooga has not changed their signage or policy yet, so the separate bins at the centers remain.

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

Glass causes problems without the right sorting equipment

WestRock, as do many MRFs, assert 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 small glass pieces mixing in with the rest of the materials and they are difficult to separate. Even worse, because of the separation issue, entire bins of recyclables can’t be sold and then all the recycling gets landfilled!
That’s why residents in Chattanooga are no longer able to place glass in the curbside bins. If you still are, please stop, as it’s a wasted effort because it’s going to the landfill and likely causing a bunch of recyclables to go in the landfill as well. Keep in mind that curbside glass from the last 4 years or so has already been landfilled. So rinse your glass, save it all in a box, and run it to the recycling center every couple of weeks.

Are there solutions for the MRFs?

There are some potential solutions to this problem. First, there is special machinery that can sort the glass pieces from single-stream recycling systems, but it is a major capital investment for the MRF. So they often landfill the glass instead.
Another solution is to collect glass separately, curbside. Chattanooga surveyed almost 4,000 residents about glass. This is a low number of respondents considering there are about 71,000 households in Chattanooga. But 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. (I did participate in this survey, and yes, I did respond that I would pay the extra fee. Clearly, I’m in the minority on this one.) Unfortunately, the survey also indicated that over half of the respondents were not willing to haul their glass to the recycling centers. That’s sad because that means that a lot of glass is going to the landfill anyway!
Side note: 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. I’ll explain more about that in my upcoming post on how glass recycling works generally.
I don’t know to what extent these ideas have been explored locally. I have been told that the Solid Waste Division in Chattanooga follows what the MRF prefers and may have contractual obligations.

Despite the issues, keep trying

Glass is 100% recyclable, so don’t give up.

Glass is still a better option for waste. In a worst-case scenario, I’d rather have glass in landfills (and sometimes oceans) instead of plastic. Why? Because plastic is toxic and leaches poison that gets into water and marine life. Plastic releases chemicals known to cause cancer or other health problems. Glass does not contain these chemicals and is less harmful. 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.

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 me.

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

Thank you for reading. And please recycle your glass!

How Recycling Works (or Doesn’t Work) in Chattanooga, TN: Part 1: Glass

Last updated on September 1, 2020.

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

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.

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

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!

I’m glad my feedback was appreciated, but they never actually answered my questions. Perhaps they don’t know the answers. Of course, I participated in the survey and encouraged others to do so. And once again, I take glass from two households to the recycling center regularly. I hope others are doing the same.

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?

Further inquiry

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!

Final Thoughts

My original intent with this topic was to educate myself on how recycling worked in Chattanooga and pass it on to you.
Honestly, I really hope our glass is getting recycled. It is very concerning and alarming to me that no one has been able to tell me for certain that, “Yes, the glass is getting recycled.”
Which brings me back to my point above: Recycling is not the only answer, especially when the recycling may in fact just be ending up in a landfill anyway.

landfill dumping, Photo by prvideotv on Pixabay
Photo by prvideotv on Pixabay

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:

WestRock single-stream recycling information