Chattanooga Suspends Curbside Recycling

Last updated September 6, 2021.

City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin
City of Chattanooga 96 gallon blue bin. Photo by me

Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling.

Just like that, with one day’s notice. It was announced in a news release on July 29 and took effect on July 30. I worry that this will not be a temporary suspension and that the “non-essential” city service will end long-term. The City removed glass recycling from curbside pick-up in 2018 and never brought it back.

The mayor seems determined to bring it back. According to their news release, “Residents should keep their recycling containers. Curbside recycling will be reinstated. However, residents may also call 311 to have their containers picked up.”1

Why?

The City of Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling pick-up because of a shortage of truck drivers. There are simply not enough people to run the trucks to collect the recycling with over 30 open CDL driver positions. The City must focus on garbage pick up because that is an essential service required by law. Officials indicated that even garbage services could see disruptions if they are not able to hire a sufficient number of employees.

While this is certainly pandemic related, the other major factor is a lower than average salary for city employees. The mayor’s Chief of Staff said, “The impact to recycling due to our driver shortage illustrates one of Chattanooga’s most acute problems: pay for city employees is far below the market rate, a problem our budget will address when we present it to City Council in August.”2

“This was a difficult decision. An increasing shortage of drivers, low employee retention and hiring challenges are just a few of the issues that made continued curbside recycling untenable.” -City of Chattanooga press release4

Dark green recycling containers at the Access Road center. Each are labeled with signs for plastic, aluminum, steel cans, and glass.
Recycling containers at the Access Road recycling center. Photo by me

How to Recycle Now

Going forward, we will have to take our recycling to the closest recycling center. The City’s news release told residents to go to one of the five city-run recycling centers. However, there are a total of 10 recycling centers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and you can use any of them. I’ve created a map showing the 5 city centers in green, and the 5 county centers in orange:

Generally, all the centers take #1 and #2 plastics, aluminum and steel cans, newspaper, mixed paper, cardboard, glass, and some offer computer equipment and oil collection. I’ve listed links to both the City and County’s websites under Additional Resources.

Note that none of the recycling centers collect #3-#7 plastics. The only reason they were allowed in the curbside bins is that the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect it.5So even though they include that they will pick up all plastics #1-#7, only #1 and #2 are actually sent for recycling. There is little or no market for #3-#7 and those are landfilled.

My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center.
My son tossing a glass jar into the recycling container at a Chattanooga recycling center. Photo by me

Impact

For residents who are either unable or unwilling to cart their recyclables to the centers, this will be the end of recycling for them. That recycling will now go to the landfill. These are typically 96-gallon bins. Our household routinely filled the blue recycling bin long before the garbage bin, and we only put our garbage out every few weeks. But I regularly see other households’ garbage bins overflowing week after week, and I can only expect to see an increase with no recycling curbside service.

Update: The City apparently did not account for the increase in recycling that would be dropped off at the recycling centers. With the exception of glass, the bins have been full and so overflowing it was hard to fit my stuff into them. This has been frustrating and extremely disappointing.

The standard issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their equal size.
The standard-issue City of Chattanooga blue recycling bin and green garbage bin side by side, showing their almost equal size. Photo by me

Time For Change?

I argue that now is the time for a change. Single-stream recycling systems are wrought with problems regarding sorting, separation, and contamination (meaning residents mix in unrecyclable items). So do we want our imperfect single-stream recycling system back? Does it increase recycling participation even though it lowers the quality of the recovered materials? Or do we need to look at other options such as lowering our use of single-use disposable plastics? Perhaps we could shift our focus to reducing waste in general?

Perhaps now is not a time to demand bringing the old system back, but a time to overhaul the City of Chattanooga’s waste management systems in general. We could pass city-wide bans on single-use plastics such as straws, plastic bags, and take-out containers. We could implement city-wide composting to reduce methane emissions. This would also allow the city to have great soil for landscape projects, urban gardens, and free or low-cost soil for residents. The opportunities are out there, but are we ready here?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving me a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

Update: The City of Chattanooga announced that they would do a one-time emergency curbside pick-up of the blue recycling bins. The announcement’s wording was that the city wanted to “empty” the bins before the plan to hopefully resume full service in October. Residents were informed to put recycling bins out on the same day as regular garbage pick-up. Many were excited that they could again recycle, even if it was just this once. Others were skeptical, myself included. I asked if they would be picking up both bins with one truck, as that would mean all of the materials would be landfilled.

Evidently, many called and emailed the city to ask the same question, which prompted the city to respond and be transparent. The materials from the one-time emergency recycling pick-up will go to the landfill. The city wants to empty the recycling bins, since it was ended so abruptly, to have a fresh start. “Many residents’ bins have..been sitting outside in the weather for several weeks now—rendering the material inside too poor a quality for a second life in the recycling aftermarket,” wrote a city spokesperson.6 The City should have been upfront about this. I know that at least half of the city residents have not followed this story and will put their stuff out, unknowingly sending it to the landfill.

Chattanooga, we can do better than this.

 

Additional Resources:

Page, “Recycling,” City of Chattanooga government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Page, “Where/When to Recycle, Hamilton County,” Tennessee government website, accessed July 31, 2021.

Footnotes:

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, so we have to buy it in plastic )
      • 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 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!

Footnotes: