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

Bag It: The Movie

Bag It the movie film cover art

Have you seen this documentary? Bag It is an excellent film, and I wholeheartedly recommend it! It’s a great introduction to not only the problem of plastic bags but of plastics in general. Please check out the trailer:

A must-see documentary

I cannot say enough good about this film. It really hits on all the topics, from the perspective of an everyday person like you or me. Before I saw this film myself a couple of years ago, I had only limited knowledge of plastics, recycling, and toxic products. This film was like my gateway to bigger individual topics – like plastic bag usage; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; toxins in food from plastic packaging; and single-use disposable plastic…everything. I had thought about those things, but I hadn’t researched them or even read much about them. I love this film! And Jeb Berrier is pretty funny too.

The film also introduced me, through interviews in the film, to a variety of plastic experts, ocean and marine life experts, and organizations trying to make the world a better place. To name a few: Beth Terry of myplasticfreelife.com; Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff Project; Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue; Algalita (founded by Captain Charles Moore); the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; Oceana; the Environmental Working Group; authors Elizabeth Royte and Daniel Imhoff; and so many more that I’m forgetting to include. The filmmakers’ requests for interviews with the American Chemistry Council and others in the plastics industry were denied or received no response. Unfortunately, that has been fairly typical with films that investigate and educate the public on the plastic problem.

Plastic bags that have somehow made it into my home. I'm saving these for trash clean ups when I go hiking. Photo by me.
Plastic bags that have somehow made it into my home. I’m saving these for trash clean-ups when I go hiking. Photo by me.

So how can you watch it?

Well, I was able to watch this documentary through the public library where I live, so always check with your library first! But I have found it is available on Amazon for purchase or streaming (see link above) if you subscribe to a certain Amazon prime program. You can rent it on iTunes as well! The film is also available on the film’s website for DVD purchase or hosting a screening (more on that in a minute).

plastic bag collection on cart, Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash
Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

Take action with Bag It The Movie

I was completely inspired by this movie! As I mentioned above, this film is one that led me to other important films, authors, individuals, and organizations that are all making a difference and trying to educate people. I consider Bag It to have been a core part of our household’s path to great changes.

I looked up the film’s website in anticipation of writing this post, and I was even more inspired! Most of their site is dedicated to using the film as a tool to educate schools, communities, and whole towns. They offer the ability for any person or organization to host a screening for a fee and have a free downloadable pdf Screening Tool Kit, which has step by step instructions and resources for screening Bag It. They also have a free downloadable pdf to initiate a Bag It Town campaign, meaning a plastic bag ban.

In my post about a weekend trip to Hilton Head Island, where I discovered that that town is implementing a plastic bag ban this month, I mentioned that I might try to propose one where I live! Between both, I’m SO moved and even more encouraged. If I do propose one in my town, I definitely know where to start now. With the tools provided by Bag It!

Thank you to Reel Thing Productions films, Director Susan Beraza, actor Jeb Berrier, the writers, all participants and interviewees from this film!

And thank you for reading! Stay inspired and be the change!

Plastic Bag Ban map, screenshot taken November 27, 2018. Link found on Bag It! the Movie's website. Map powered by Google.
Plastic Bag Ban map, screenshot taken November 27, 2018. Link found on Bag It! the Movie’s website. Map powered by Google.

 

This post does not contain any affiliate links.

What’s the Big Deal about Plastic Straws?

straws colorful, Photo by Bilderjet on Pixabay
Photo by Bilderjet on Pixabay

There was an article this past Sunday in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about a coalition of aquariums across the United States that are striving to reduce the use of plastic straws. The coalition is called the Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP) and is a collaboration of 22 public aquariums in 17 states, including the Tennessee Aquarium. They are “committed to advancing conservation of the world’s ocean, lakes, and rivers through consumer engagement, business leadership and policy changes.”

Aquariums are awesome and full of wonder and thousands of children go through them daily. So they are poised to be leaders in positive change, and this is a great example of that! One of the things they’re doing is asking restaurants and others in the hospitality industry to reduce the use of straws by only giving them out upon request, instead of automatically. They’re also asking individuals like you to sign this pledge to stop using plastic straws.

My son in awe at the Tennessee Aquarium when he was just 2 and a half. Photo by me.
My son in awe at the Tennessee Aquarium when he was just 2 and a half. Photo by me.

“Partnership companies have eliminated more than 5 millions straws per year,” the article says. But in the United States alone, we are using 500 million disposable plastic straws per dayThe article refers back to a recent study about microplastic pollution in the Tennessee River, which I’ll write about in a future post. The article also mentioned that the Tennessee Aquarium has switched to recyclable paper straws.

But the article failed to explain why plastic straws are such a problem, and here’s why I think that. They posted a poll through the online version of the newspaper, asking “Do you thinking banning plastic straws is helpful?” The results: Yes 49%, No 51%. I was so SAD to see such results. After all the recent media about disposable plastic straws, people still don’t understand the ramifications of single-use disposable plastic?

Well, I seek to change that and help people understand. Let’s be the change together!

Colored plastic straws sorted by color. Image by Marjon Besteman-Horn from Pixabay
Image by Marjon Besteman-Horn from Pixabay

So what’s wrong with plastic straws?

First, the sheer amount of them! Just like with all single-use disposable plastic products, it’s the over-consumption and the over-dependency we have on them. Think 500 million straws per day. That’s more than one straw per person per day in the United States. Our consumption has gone way overboard and has created a waste stream that is too large for us to keep up with! Second, they are not recyclable at all.

But I’m not here to judge. And I’m not here to shame you. I’m here to encourage you to START TODAY. Politely refuse those plastic straws – if everyone refuses just one straw per day, we’ll more than cut our usage in half! What if 75% of refused them every day? I’m no mathematician, but that’s a lot of waste that just wouldn’t happen.

“Between 170 and 390 million straws are used per day in the United States.” –Living Without Plastic: More Than 100 Easy Swaps for Home, Travel, Dining, Holidays, and Beyond 

I threw my disposables into the trash/recycling receptacle like I’m supposed to – isn’t that enough? How is it ending up in the rivers and ocean?

I think one of the critical issues with all the media about single-use disposable plastics is that the biggest question is often not answered: How does the plastic end up in the ocean in the first place?

Most people assume that once they’ve placed their disposables into a receptacle, those disposables go to the proper facility. What people don’t know – and I didn’t either until just a couple of years ago – is that that item may not make it to the recycling facility or landfill. And that’s out of our control, so isn’t it impossible to do anything about it?

No. It’s not impossible by any means. The best way to guarantee that your single-use disposable plastics don’t end up in the ocean is…

To just not use them! Refuse them. Find an alternative. Then you do have control. We have the power to be the change.

So back to the question – how is it ending up in the rivers and ocean?

There are so many causes! Spillage from recycling that has been transported across the ocean for years to Asia; plastic products shipped across the ocean to the U.S. have spilled from ships; the fishing industry; trash and litter that gets blown or washed into water streams such as rivers, that then feed into the ocean; illegal dumping; people leaving trash on beaches, waterways, and from personal watercraft; microbeads washing down drains; and debris from natural disasters and floods. Plastic bags are picked up by the wind and blown into waterways that flow into the ocean.

Single use disposable plastic straw found buried in the sand, Hilton Head Island, October 2018. Photo by me.
Single-use disposable plastic straw found buried in the sand, Hilton Head Island, October 2018. Photo by me.

Have you noticed plastic straws have been in the media lately?

Our family hasn’t used plastic straws since before it was the trend, and I’m happy to see others coming on board. We mostly just don’t use straws but we do carry a reusable stainless steel straw with us for when we need it.

If you Google “plastic straws” you will get an array of news stories either supporting the end of plastic straws or arguing against (since it is only one small part of the greater problem of single-use disposable plastics). If you Google “plastic straws ban” there are even more articles about cities and states that are either implementing or working on a legislative plastic straw ban. I’m not going to summarize either of those searches here because, frankly, it would take me several posts to write such a summary. However, I encourage you to read up on it – after you finish reading my post first, that is. The following meme will make a lot more sense, too.

Forest Gump on straws, I couldn't stop giggling at this, so I'm reposting it here.
I couldn’t stop giggling at this, so I’m reposting it here.

I believe that many of these things cannot be legislated solely, that there must be a drive that is tied to economics. Disclaimer: I am not an economist. But here’s what I think: If consumers are asking businesses they patronize to stop using certain items, such as single-use disposable plastics, the consumer also has the power to not patronize that business. If consumers refuse to spend money at a business because that business does not do or provide what consumers want, then that business will be forced to change if they want to maintain profitability.

Starbucks is one company that is striving to end use of plastic straws by 2020. Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash
Starbucks is one company that is striving to end the use of plastic straws by 2020. Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Ok, so what steps can I take?

First, let’s support the Aquarium Conservation Partnership. You can do this by signing the pledge: https://pledge.ourhands.org/.

Second, refuse. Just say no thank you. To all single-use disposable plastics. Because recycling is not the answer. Only about 9% of our plastics get recycled. That means 91% is not recycled!

Third, if you must have something commonly produced as a single-use disposable plastic, like a straw, please buy a reusable one. Paper disposables and supposedly biodegradable straws are a better option, but it’s still going to be thrown away after one use. Try one of these (these are affiliate links): stainless steel straw; glass straw; or a bamboo straw.

Fourth, tell others! Tell your friends, your co-workers, your favorite restaurant, the local coffee shop, your local school. So many people to tell!

Fifth, participate in clean-up efforts. Join the Litterati. Maybe you’ll keep some of the trash you pick up from entering the ocean.

Last, stop supporting businesses that just won’t get on board. Go somewhere else.

Final Thoughts

I think that we all, collectively, have the power to create change just by modeling. Now I don’t mean on the runway – think in the psychological sense, or if you’re a parent – you want to model the best behavior. Refuse that straw. Be polite, of course. But just say no. If everyone starts refusing straws, businesses won’t have the need to order as many. Then the plastic straw manufacturers will have to produce less. And then less will end up in the landfill, in nature, and in the oceans. It will be a utopia! Ok, maybe not, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And let’s all sign the pledge to refuse straws when we go anywhere – to the coffee shop, restaurant, or movie theater.

Be the change! And as always, thanks for reading.

This post contains affiliate links. Proceeds help me pay for the cost of running the blog.