Tennessee leaders prohibit local governments from being able to issue bans on single-use pollutants

Last updated August 7, 2021.

I know. That doesn’t make any sense.

I read this article and was thoroughly confused at first. Why on Earth would anyone vote for such legislation?

Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019.
Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019

The physical copy’s headline is “Protecting Plastic” and is on the front page of the newspaper. The first sentence summarizes:

A surprise amendment to a state bill would make it illegal for municipalities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for many single-use plastic items that have polluted Tennessee waterways at an alarming rate.

This ridiculous measure was added on at the last minute. “The bill is being passed as an amendment to a totally unrelated bill, which pertains to county district boundary maps.”

The article, “Amendment to Tennessee bill would make it illegal for cities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for single-use pollutants,” explains that House Bill 1021 is just that. This would mean that there could be no single-use disposable plastic ban in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There could be no plastic bag ban or in Knox or Davidson County. No city or county would be able to lead the way for the rest of the state with a ban. And the State of Tennessee, so far, has no interest in producing legislation banning these types of materials.

They are called “single-use pollutants” for a reason

Often made of plastic, single-use items are created specifically to be purchased and used only one time by the consumer. The consumer then disposes of the item. Even if the consumer recycled that item, we know that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled.

Many single-use items surround food, convenience foods specifically. Here, I define convenience foods like fast foods, processed and packaged foods, convenience store foods, and take-out food.

Single-use items made of plastic include:

    • Straws
    • Disposable drink cups
    • Fast-food or take-out containers
    • Plastic utensils for take-out or fast food
    • Single drink bottles (soda, water, juice)
    • Coffee cups and plastic cups from coffee and juice bars
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay.
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay

In addition to those, think of single-use plastic bags. Feel free to read my posts on the film Bag It or on one southern coastal town that took measures in 2018 to ban single-use plastic bags to protect the environment. I think we should be thinking the same thing, and I know many agree.

Plastic bag found in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me.
I found this plastic bag in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me

“Shortly after the [City of San Jose] imposed its Bring Your Pwn Bag Ordinance in 2012, single-use plastic bag debris decreased by 89 percent in storm drains and 60 percent in creeks and rivers. Bag bans work.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau

The Tennessee River is already polluted with microplastics

In a study published late last year, a German scientist revealed at the Tennessee Aquarium’s Conservation Institute that there is an extreme amount of plastics and microplastics in the Tennessee River. More than other large rivers with larger populations. And that river leads straight to the Gulf, dumping those plastics into the ocean as well. So why would we stop local governments from trying to do the right thing by protecting the environment, along with human health? Why are we protecting plastic?

Plastic bottle floating in the Tennessee River. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me.
Plastic Powerade bottle floating in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Aquarium. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me

“Single use plastics clog our stormwater systems, pollute our waterways, kill wildlife and eventually result in microplastics in our water system,” the Tennesse chapter of the Sierra Club wrote. “Local communities know best how to handle their unique challenges with single-use plastics, and unless the state wants to enact a ban across Tennessee, the General Assembly should stay out of their way.”

Politics

Regardless of political party, if you’re a Tennessean, you are most likely connected to the outdoors. Whether it’s fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, or boating, Tennesseans love our outdoor activities. And we like to share them with the tourists who visit here. We want to protect tourism in large and small cities in Tennessee, many of which are connected to the Tennessee River. So what sense does it make to jeopardize our beautiful outdoor spaces by proposing legislation to make the environmental problems worse?

State Representative Susan Lynn explained that regulations and bans surrounding single-use pollutants should only be implemented at the state level. Local governments should not because they “stand to create a patchwork of very confusing local regulations that make it really hard to run a business and very expensive.” Obviously, I completely disagree. That leaves no place for one municipality to lead the way for the rest.

Tennessee Senator Mike Bell supports the bill as well. He advocates for uniform state regulations regarding business. He claimed in that article that Tennessee was rated “Number 1” in the nation for small businesses in recent years. I searched the internet to verify this information and was unable to find information. I did not that find a source that even places Tennessee in the top 5, including reputable sources such as Forbes and Fortune.

Another supporter of banning plastic bans

Grant Kidwell, the Director of energy, environment, and agriculture task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said he does not believe bans are the right way to deal with the pollutants. ALEC is a non-partisan voluntary membership organization of state legislators “dedicated to the principles of limited government.” However, placing a ban on bans at the state level is not limited government – isn’t that over-governing?

Kidwell’s work has focused mainly on energy, although he’s written at least one article before arguing that there are too many bad food and plastic bag policies. Even so, he wrote that “the type of container people use to buy food, clothes, or any other items is a decision that should be made by businesses and their consumers.” Great, let the people decide. But don’t stop them from advocating for a local ban through state legislation.

“We believe it’s better to try to improve public waste collection.,” Kidwell also said. Clearly, he does not understand that our waste management systems are broken. Or that single-stream recycling systems are inherently dysfunctional.

Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me.
Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me

Oil

The real worry is that those protecting plastics are really trying to protect oil and natural gas interests. Plastics are made from both materials, petroleum and natural gas. Companies producing petroleum and plastic products will protect their interests, and often over any environmental or human health concern. The United States is the largest consumer of oil by nation, consuming nearly 913.3 million metric tons of oil in 2017. We are also the largest natural gas consumers in the world.

What can you do?

I called both of my representatives’ offices to oppose the bill, and my messages were “passed along.” However, I am sad to report that House Bill 1021 passed the House and Senate and Governor Bill Lee signed it into law on April 12, 2019.

But you can ban single-use disposable plastics from your own life. Avoid purchasing single-use products!

Feel free to leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you for reading.

 

Footnotes:

 

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

Last updated on September 1, 2020.

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

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

How did I find out?

The answer was not obtained through the City of Chattanooga’s Recycling Department, nor WestRock, our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). No one from the City even referred me to the right person or company. I was able to speak to the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Strategic Materials, Laura Hennemann, last week, and she confirmed that glass from Chattanooga’s recycling centers goes directly to their Atlanta facility and is recycled.

Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition

Strategic Materials is the largest glass recycling company in North America, and they have nearly 50 facilities nationwide. Three of those are in Georgia. I got in touch with Hennemann by contacting the Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC), of which Strategic Materials is a member. The GRC, formed in 2016, “brings together a diverse membership of companies and organizations to make glass recycling work: glass manufacturers, haulers, processors, materials recovery facilities, capital markets, end markets and brands that use glass to showcase their products.” They encourage MRFs to become members. WestRock is not a listed member.

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

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

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

Recycling is extremely complex

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

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

How recycling works in Chattanooga

The Public Works Department in the City of Chattanooga manages garbage and recycling curbside collection through the Solid Waste and Recycling Division. City employees operate the equipment and run the daily routes, and the City of Chattanooga owns and maintains the trucks.

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

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

WestRock is the primary MRF for much of the Southeast U.S. They are a paper recycling company first, so paper and cardboard recovery are their number one motivation when it comes to materials recovery.

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

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

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

Glass causes problems without the right sorting equipment

WestRock, as do many MRFs, assert that they do not have the ability to sort the glass broken before it reaches their facility, citing damage to their conveyor belts and machinery. The glass can also contaminate the rest of the recycling materials at the MRFs’ facilities. There are several types of contamination, but in this case, it refers to the small glass pieces mixing in with the rest of the materials and they are difficult to separate. Even worse, because of the separation issue, entire bins of recyclables can’t be sold and then all the recycling gets landfilled!
That’s why residents in Chattanooga are no longer able to place glass in the curbside bins. If you still are, please stop, as it’s a wasted effort because it’s going to the landfill and likely causing a bunch of recyclables to go in the landfill as well. Keep in mind that curbside glass from the last 4 years or so has already been landfilled. So rinse your glass, save it all in a box, and run it to the recycling center every couple of weeks.

Are there solutions for the MRFs?

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

Despite the issues, keep trying

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

Glass is still a better option for waste. In a worst-case scenario, I’d rather have glass in landfills (and sometimes oceans) instead of plastic. Why? Because plastic is toxic and leaches poison that gets into water and marine life. Plastic releases chemicals known to cause cancer or other health problems. Glass does not contain these chemicals and is less harmful. So I’m going to keep purchasing products in glass over plastic every time. Especially since I don’t want chemicals from those plastics in my family’s food.

I’ll also keep taking my glass to the recycling center because I am able and willing to take the time. So I’m asking you to do the same – bring your glass to one of the five recycling centers. If you can’t do it, maybe a friend can drop yours off when they take theirs. For example, I take my in-law’s glass for them every few weeks. I’m happy to do it. What about starting a little co-op of glass recycling in your neighborhood, or at work? Everyone takes a turn, and the glass gets recycled.

One of several bins of glass I brought to recycle, as I collect from two households. Photo by me.
One of several bins of glass I brought to recycle, as I collect from two households. Photo by me.

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

Thank you for reading. And please recycle your glass!

Have you seen WALL-E?

Wall-E DVD cover art

Have you seen the movie WALL-E? It features two cute little robots that mostly communicate through a few words and voice inflections. There’s very little dialogue so the story is told visually and beautifully. I found it to be a powerful movie. Here’s the trailer for it:

I first saw this movie about a year ago. I borrowed it from the library so that I could watch it with my son, and I was really blown away by the film! The day after, I was talking to a colleague about it and he told me that he can gauge a person by their reaction to that movie. He said if they’re indifferent about it, that’s likely how they are about the environment as well. But if a person reacts emotionally, it says a lot about them. While you can’t judge a person by a single film reaction, of course, that conversation has always stuck in my mind.

There’s a lot about WALL-E that stuck with me.

So I watched it again over the weekend.

Please note: the rest of this post does contain spoilers. So if you haven’t watched it, please go watch it and then come back and finish reading this post!

Wall-E, Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

The movie was made by Disney-Pixar. And even though it’s 10 years old already, it’s still completely relevant. WALL-E is cleaning up the trash on Earth, which has become one giant wasteland and landfill. Humans made so much trash and polluted the air so bad that all of the plant life died off and they had to move to space! It takes place 700 years in the future. The little robot is lonely and has only one friend, a little cockroach (because cockroaches can survive everything, right?).

He finds interesting objects while cleaning up the trash, such as silverware, Zippo lighters, and Rubik’s cubes. The robot discovers a squeaky dog toy and a bra, which he mistakes for a mask. He catalogs and sorts the items in his home. (That part reminded me of The Little Mermaid when Ariel collects items from shipwrecks and keeps them in her secret cove.) WALL-E even has one of the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques that were popular years ago. He has recovered one videotape of Hello, Dolly! from the late 1960s, from which he learns about emotions and human interactions.

rubiks cube, Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

The air is cloudy, there’s very little water and no plant life. The whole premise of the movie is that once plant life reappears on Earth, humans can return. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot that has come to Earth to search for plant life. He finds a plant and gives it to her as a token of love. But this is her mission and it spawns a journey that lays out the history of corporate greed, mass consumerism, and the unsustainable disposable economy and lifestyle that humans created. So much stuff and waste that the Earth became polluted and uninhabitable.

Sometimes that sounds like the path we’re on right now.

plant, Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash

In the movie, the worst part was that humans, once in space, did not change their behaviors. They rocketed their trash further into space instead of learning from the past. This behavior was propelled by corporate giant B&L, a fictional sort of Walmart that gained a monopoly on Earth and gained control of everything by the time the humans left for space.

This movie really hit home for me. Did you feel the same when you saw it?

Truly, though, if robots can get it, why can’t we?

I think many of us do, and I think the more people that learn about the worldwide waste crisis, the more people who will want to change things. So help me spread the word and educate others. Let your children watch this movie. Share it with a friend. Leave me a comment below. And thanks for reading.

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Support “The Story of Plastic”

Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash
Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Have you ever heard of The Story of Stuff? It’s a 20-minute film that is “a fast-paced, fact-filled explanation of the consumerist economy.” It began with the writer and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, Annie Leonard. She’s an amazing person and a leader in environmental and social issues. It is 100% worth your time to watch, I promise!

The Story of Story Project has since come out with more than a dozen high-quality short documentary films that explain the relationship between consumer products and environmental problems. But their newest one is really exciting!!! It’s called…

The Story of Plastic

“These days, more and more of our Stuff is being made from one very problematic material: plastic.” They want to tell the hidden stories surrounding plastic. The production, the pollution, the health hazards. This is their first feature-length film. Here’s a trailer for their film:

Do we need another film about plastic?

Yes, we do. There aren’t enough of them. The ones that do exist are really good and the message is getting out, but we need even more people to hear and see and understand the message: Plastic is ruining our environment, poisoning us (cancer, endocrine and thyroid diseases, etc.), and littering our landscape. The Earth is SO Beautiful – don’t we want it to stay that way?

And recycling is not the answer because only 9% of our plastic is actually getting recycled! That means 91% is ending up in landfills, the ocean, the rivers and lakes, beaches, parks, and our neighborhoods. It even ends up in our food and water that we drink.

plastic waste environment, Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The Story of Stuff Project is fundraising to complete this project. Please help me support this worthy cause. They are asking people to become “a Plastic Insider by starting a recurring monthly donation supporting The Story of Plastic production fund today.” There are insider perks: your name will be in the credits of the film and you gain access to behind the scenes videos. Here’s a video of supporters who spend their lives on a sailboat:

I signed up as a monthly, recurring donor today. Can you help too? You can also make a one-time donation in any amount you’d like. And if you’re really ambitious, you can create your own Facebook fundraiser!

“The Story of Plastic isn’t just a movie. It’s a call to action.”

Are you as excited about this film as I am? Leave a comment below! Thank you for reading.

Update 04/30/2020: This film has been released! It’s available on amazon.com and other places listed on the Story of Plastic’s website. I can’t wait to watch it!