Last updated on October 9, 2022.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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