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 Don’t return your bin just yet, though.
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 These positions require a CDL and three years of experience, but the base pay offer is only $31,548. The mayor announced that he’d like to raise the pay to $45,000 with City Council approval, and resume recycling services within 60 days.3 But it seems that even if they increase pay rates, it could take months to fill that many open positions.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fall is my favorite season! I love the drop in temperature, the changing hues, the sight of leaves floating down, and the sound of leaves crunching under my feet. We have a big backyard with a wooded area, hence lots of trees. We rarely rake our leaves because I like the sight of them and my son and I can hunt pretty ones.
But by the end of the season, many people feel the need to remove leaves. Here are some eco-friendly tips about how to manage the fall leaves in your yard.
“Autumn leaves are falling, filling up the streets; golden colors on the lawn, nature’s trick or treat!”–Rusty Fischer
To remove, or not to remove
I am a proponent of letting nature go through its natural process. We leave our leaves in the fall and by spring we either mow them and let the bits settle into the ground, or we rake them and put them in our compost bin. Leave your leaves if you can! Let your kids or dogs play in them. This is the most natural and Earth-friendly option.
But leaves can sometimes cause problems and in those situations must be removed. Leaves left on some types of grass will smother grass growth come spring. Leaves left in your yard can also allow a certain type of outdoor mold to grow on your lawn. Leaf dander can really affect people with allergies (I’m one of them, so no argument there). Also, leaves cannot be left on roofs and in gutters for obvious reasons.
Ways NOT to Dispose of Leaves
Whether you rake, blow, shovel, or mow your leaves, there are several natural and healthy ways to dispose of them. But whatever you do, please don’t bag them in plastic! Placing 100% biodegradable contents into a sealed plastic bag that goes to a landfill where they will never biodegrade is the worst practice for the environment.
When I took this photo in my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out why people bag their leaves in plastic (there are multiple neighbors with bagged leaves right now). But then I discovered that the city’s website indicates to residents that they may bag up leaves and yard waste and request separate pick up from the regular garbage pick up. The website says you can also put them loose on your curb for Loose Leaf collection (where they use the giant vacuum truck). But what the website does not say is what happens to those leaves after they are picked up. I’m sure many don’t give it a second thought – out of sight, out of mind – so the homeowner probably believes they were doing the right thing.
I emailed the City of Chattanooga to find out what happens to the bagged leaves, but it took 4 email exchanges to obtain a thorough answer. It turns out that paper or plastic bagged leaves are picked up by the city’s waste contractor (WestRock) and taken to the landfill. Only the unbagged loose leaves that are left on the curb are picked up by the city and taken to the city’s wood composting facility. I don’t think many residents know this because if they did, I think people would change their practice or request the city change its protocol. There is a lack of clarity on the website and through their email service, and maybe people don’t think or have time to ask for additional information.
Unfortunately, I doubt we are the only city that handles leaves this way. So please, always check with your municipality before bagging your leaves!
Another neighbor takes his yard debris, including leaves, and puts them unbagged into his city garbage can. He may believe that they will decompose and not know that nothing decomposes in a standard landfill. So it is very important to refrain from this practice as well.
Ways to Dispose of Leaves
If you must have your leaves removed, you’ll need to check with your local municipality about leaf collection and how they dispose of the leaves. Do they send them to a compost facility? Are they sent to the incinerator? Or are they landfilled? Try to find the option that allows the leaves to decompose, such as the option to put them on the curb and have them vacuumed up by city services. Keep asking questions if you don’t get a thorough response the first time.
The best option is to put leaves in your compost. Compost thrives from having a variety of materials, especially dead leaf matter mixed with food waste. So rake them and put them in your compost. And if you don’t have a compost bin, maybe this is a good time to start one!
If you have woods around your yard, you can easily find a place to dump your leaves. This home below, as you can see, has a wooded area adjacent to their land where they could’ve dumped these leaves and let nature take its course. You will want to avoid dumping them in ditches or waterways to prevent flooding.
A third option is to save them to use as a mulch cover. If your mower has a bagged mulch option, you could mow and mulch them and use them in the spring for your garden.
Last, some like to burn leaves. Besides the obvious safety and fire hazards, it turns out that the practice can have health hazards too. According to Purdue University, the smoke from burning leaves contains tiny particles and gases that can accumulate in the lungs over time. Additionally, the smoke from moist leaves gives off hydrocarbons, an irritant to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs but also which sometimes are carcinogenic.1
Regardless of how you deal with your leaves, enjoy fall! It’s a beautiful season that’s the beginning of a renewal. It features a few of the most fun holidays, the weather is cooler for outdoor activities, and it’s gorgeous. Maybe forget raking the leaves and just enjoy the season? Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!
“Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring.”– Truman Capote
In my last article, I told you about my family’s growing interest in tiny houses. I’ve been pursuing buying or building a tiny house in our area, but I’ve run into many roadblocks. I want to provide a few clarifications: first, tiny can be defined as anything under 700 square feet. What we really want is a house under 1000 square feet, which could also be classified as a small house. Second, we are not looking to be mobile. Some tiny house owners want to tow their house and use it for traveling. We want to build it on a foundation. Third, we are not looking to be off the grid – we want electricity and plumbing. Last, we want to do this 100% legally, and that’s where the biggest roadblocks have been.
Where can you put a tiny house?
Though I’m in Tennessee, I want to share my experience because I suspect it is typical of many regions of the United States. I found it very confusing to figure out what you can build and where you can build. If you watch popular tiny house TV shows, they make it seem like you can just park one anywhere. But I’m afraid that that’s just not true. There are many details, ordinances, and regulations. When I started the process, I didn’t even know how to find the information. Even now I’m certainly no expert, but I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it helps others navigate the same process.
I’ve spoken to several tiny home builders and real estate agents about buying or building a tiny house. None were able to give me enough information or direction. Real estate agents especially did not seem very motivated to work with me. From a financial perspective, we were only looking to buy a small piece of land under $30,000, rather than a huge house in the hundreds of thousands, thus less of a commission for them. A couple of agents were somewhat helpful, but only to a point. One even told me that I could “plop one down anywhere I wanted,” which is completely inaccurate and misleading.
Well, kind of. I can buy a tiny house and park it in my backyard tomorrow. But I cannot legally reside in it full-time.
Zoning: County, or City?
Though I thought real estate agents would be most knowledgeable in zoning laws, they often referred me to the county and city zoning offices to find out for myself. I called both zoning offices multiple times over several months and left messages and I’ve never received a return call from either. I was going to have to take a day off from work to visit the offices in person, but I never even got that far.
Eventually, I figured out that zoning is different in the county versus the city; that sections of each have their own zoning regulations; and that individual subdivisions within the city and county often have their own restrictions. Each of these has requirements about minimum square footage, lot size, foundation type, home shape (to prevent mobile homes), etc. Many of these rules are created as safety regulations, but some were created simply to keep poor people out of certain neighborhoods.
We looked at many pieces of land in person and online. Some were in the city and some were in the county, but this isn’t always easy to determine. When I asked real estate agents directly, I often did not get a clear answer. Here are some of the small, quick tricks you can use to determine which zoning to even start with:
Look at the garbage cans – if those are city-issued, then it is city zoning.
You can tell by school zone if schools are separated by city and county (where we live, it all falls under the county).
Check the public library system to find out if it serves the city or county.
Find out which utilities (water, gas, electric) service the county and city separately, you can determine the zone that way.
We found several pieces of land into which we made serious inquiries with real estate agents. Regarding one particular property, the agent responded via email:
“This particular property is zoned R1 so you could build on it but I’m not sure if there is a minimum size or not and also, since it’s in a subdivision, there are probably restrictions on what can be built…If there are no subdivision restrictions, you would probably have to get a special permit for a tiny home…It is my understanding that zone R5 is the only one not required to get a special permit. If I were you, I would make a trip to the zoning office and try to get them to break down the process for what you are wanting to do.”
That was a lot of information for me to understand in just one paragraph, especially since I am not versed in zoning laws.
Many areas do not have a separate classification for tiny homes. Zoning classifications are not standardized and can vary greatly. Even if a municipality follows the International Residential Code (IRC), there are usually amendments and exceptions. Generally, most indicate the type of use with a letter or combination of letters, for example, R for residential or C for commercial. There is usually a number to indicate the type of development. For example, in our area, R1 refers to lots for single-family dwellings.1
R1: Residential buildings
The definition of R1: “Single-family dwellings, excluding factory manufactured homes constructed as a single self-contained unit and mounted on a single chassis.” I have been unable to find the minimum square footage for new R-1 construction in our city and county, except that they follow the standards of the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) with many amendments and exceptions. The 2012 IRC requires a minimum of 120 habitable square feet in at least one room. Other rooms must be at least 70 square feet with 7-foot ceilings. But in some county municipalities adjacent to Chattanooga, the minimum is 1400-1500 square feet for newly constructed residential buildings.
R5: Manufactured residential homes
R5 is intended for single-wide manufactured homes in specifically designated places. In other words, here R5 means trailer or mobile home park. In many places throughout the United States, tiny houses are relegated to mobile home communities. Tiny houses that are 400 square feet or above are often classified as manufactured homes. Many of the tiny house models we liked were either right at 400 square feet or just over. In the city, a manufactured home is defined as a structure, transportable in one or more sections, which is at least 8 feet wide and 32 feet long (256 square feet) “and which is built on a permanent chassis, and designed to be used as a dwelling with or without permanent foundation, and connected to the required utilities, and includes plumbing, heating, air conditioning, and electrical systems contained therein.”2
A1: Agriculture use
In our county, A1 zoning is “intended for agricultural uses and single-family dwellings at 2 units per acre maximum.” One real estate agent and one tiny house company informed me that I could “probably get away with a tiny house” on a lot with that zoning. But we don’t want to “get away with it” and hope we don’t get caught, experiencing consequences of hefty fines and a relocation later. We want to do this legally.
Travel trailer or camper
If a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is classified as a travel trailer, they are only allowed to be used for short-term occupancy or vacation rental for less than 30 days. So you can technically own one and park it wherever an RV is allowed, but you cannot reside in them full-time or permanently.
Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions
On top of figuring out the county zoning for areas outside of the city, many subdivisions have what are called Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs). These rules govern the use of lots in the subdivision or neighborhood and are usually enforced by a homeowners’ association. Again, many of these rules are created as safety regulations. But some were put in place to prevent the poor from moving into those neighborhoods.
Unfortunately with every single lot that we inquired about, we hit a roadblock, usually in the form of said CC&Rs. Some had a minimum square footage requirement of 1500 square feet, and two required a minimum of 2500 square feet! I honestly don’t even know what I’d do with a house that size. Another real estate agent recommended a vacant double lot zoned as R2, on which we could’ve built a small duplex and rented out half. But it also had a steep grade and would have required a double foundation or a poured wall foundation. This combination seemed too much for us to take on financially and physically.
Commit with no guarantee
If we decided to build a small house on a foundation and got past any relevant CC&Rs, then we could apply for a special permit through the applicable zoning office. But we would have to buy the land first, and then to apply for the permits we would have to bring the zoning office architectural or building plans. If this order is correct, we would have to purchase the land, then work with a general contract or architect and pay them to draw up the plans. So we’d have to commit financially to the land and the plans before we’d even know if we could build the small house we desire.
Retrofitting an Older House
There are some single-family homes in our area under 1000 square feet, but most of them are older homes. When you purchase an older home, as we did, you must be prepared for the problems of an old home. Homes built before the 1980s can have asbestos, as our house did, and asbestos remediation is expensive. Homes built before 1978 often have lead paint and contractors will not perform work on your house until it has been tested. Some argue that you can “get around” testing for things like asbestos and lead by doing the work yourself. But the risk is exposing yourself and your family to known highly carcinogenic toxic materials. Older homes sometimes have mold or mildew issues. Old construction materials may have been made or treated with dangerous chemicals, such as old insulation, lead pipes, and varnishes.
I’m not against owning an older home, but I wish I had known these things before buying one so I could have been prepared financially. We would like newer construction because of our experience. Many tiny houses tend to have new building materials or be newly constructed. Additionally, the cost is often higher to retrofit or “gut” an old house and rebuild the interior with updated plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. than it is to buy or build a new tiny or small house.
Tiny House zoning issues
Tiny houses are not allowed in many places, and this is most often due to the property tax structure. Property taxes are a major income source for local governments. They often pay for a variety of services including schools, fire and police, infrastructure, libraries, garbage and recycling, etc. Property taxes are usually based on the value of your land and home. The more square footage of the home, the higher the taxes, and the more income the municipality takes in. So there is not much motivation there to allow tiny or even small houses. The system discourages small and sustainable living.
Movement on the rise
Cities in Florida, Oregon, California, Arizona, and several other states have laws that allow full-time residency in small or tiny houses. Tiny house communities are popping up in different areas, like the ones I mentioned at River Ridge Escape in Georgia. Some argue that the tiny house movement is a trend and will be short-lived. Others claim that the movement is here to stay. The number of people seeking smaller mortgages, no mortgages, a lower carbon footprint, an easier lifestyle, or simply affordable housing, is growing.
Thank you for reading, I hope this information is helpful. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying to go tiny. As for my family, we have tabled our effort to build in our area. But it is not off the table! If there are any errors or misinterpretations in this article, it is because my understanding of building codes and ordinances is rudimentary. I’ve largely had to figure this out on my own. If you have updated information or your own experience to share, leave me a comment!
Page, “Are Tiny Houses Illegal in Your State?” by Maria Fredgaard.
Article, “Tiny-house owners are facing evictions or living under the radar because their homes are considered illegal in most parts of the US,” Insider.com, December 14, 2020.
Page, “Where Can I Build a Tiny House?” by Maria Fredgaard.
Article, “A woman who parked her tiny house on her parents’ property in New Hampshire was forced to move out after the local government said it was illegal,” Insider.com, December 30, 2020.