Is recycling still workable? Is it worth it? Why is it so important?
Sooner or later, the paper you currently hold in your hands will be discarded. It will make up part of the 4.4 pounds the average American tosses every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It could be trashed, sent to the landfill the State of Tennessee expects to fill up by 2018.
Or this paper could disappear into one of Chattanooga’s blue recycling bins, dropping into the recycling economy the way the EPA says about 34 percent of Americans waste does.
The curbside recycling pickup and its industry, at least in Chattanooga, is growing with new residents signing up every week. At least one recycler is in the process of upgrading its recycling abilities. This is all overshadowed by a slump in the recycling market that pushed the price for recyclables low. It’s an economy that all starts with this paper.
Curbside recycling isn’t the only recycling effort in Chattanooga. It doesn’t cover the solid waste from Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant being converted to fertilizer, the city’s hazardous waste collection program, nor the efforts of large companies in the area to produce zero waste. However, with the blue bins set out to the road every week, it’s one of the most visible.
“Recycling is not just beneficial to Tennessee’s environment, but is also beneficial to the economy,” Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation wrote in its 10-year plan to manage the recycling waste in the state last April.
Over 20 years ago, Tennessee focused on creating an infrastructure for collecting and disposing waste, diverting it from Class 1 landfills. It had set a goal: Divert 25 percent of the state’s solid waste. The state exceeded the goal diverting 31 percent of its waste in 2011.
According to the report, Tennessee’s new objective is to use materials in a more sustainable way and use recycling to improve the state economy. Furthermore, the report recommended the state boost its recycling goal and recycle 40 percent of the waste by 2025.
Recycling in the City
In one year, the city of Chattanooga increased the number of residents participating in curbside pickup by 14.5 percent. In March 2015, there were 21,255 participants in the recycling program. This March, there were 24,085 and the city was sending up 54.6 percent more tons of recyclables to Orange Grove, the organization contracted to process Chattanooga’s recyclables.
In the coming fiscal year, the city hopes to increase the number of Chattanoogans who are recycling by 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the city of East Ridge collects about 125 tons of trash a week and “a good average” of recyclables weighs in at about 50 tons, according to Melvin Petty, supervisor for East Ridge Department of Sanitation.
East Ridge also picks up recyclables at every school and several businesses in the city.
Four years ago in September, East Ridge City Council explored recycling. They had trucks and manpower already in place. WestRock, the recycling company formerly known as RockTenn, agreed to take the waste. “We started; and it just took off,” Petty said.
It currently costs East Ridge about $30 a ton to truck the waste to a transfer station on 38th Street where Republic takes it to a landfill. Sending a ton of recyclable waste to WestRock, however, earns the city $10—a net difference of $40.
The City of Chattanooga is paying Orange Grove $603,492.37 for the 2016 fiscal year. This is to pay for the salaries of the people from Orange Grove to service the collection centers across the city. The city receives the revenue from the recyclables collected at the centers, though.
Currently, city trucks do not service the schools in Chattanooga. They are run by the county and it’s the county’s responsibility to service those locations, according to Chattanooga officials.
Landfills and “Feel Good” Programs
But it wasn’t always this way. In 2006, then-Mayor Ron Littlefield scaled back the collection of recyclables from once a week to once a month. His administration also added the collection centers across the city.
USA Today reported then the city would save $1.1 million a year. In an email to The Pulse, Littlefield explained the city was expending too much of a nonrenewable resource (oil to power city trucks) to save too little renewable ones like paper.
“Working with cities across the country, I must tell you that no community has totally solved the recycling issue,” Littlefield wrote. “It’s still a question of balancing the economic and environmental realities. ‘Feel good’ programs often do more harm than good.”
Initially, it appears that sending the city’s waste to a landfill is cheaper, according to Jason Silvers, recycling coordinator in Chattanooga Department of Public Works. But what must be factored is the cost of a landfill throughout its whole life. The true cost of throwing all waste into a landfill comes when one landfill fills up and another site selected, developed and permits worked out. “Nobody wants another landfill,” Silvers said.
City trucks collect trash and transports it to a transfer station operated by Santek Waste Services. For about $13.50 a ton, the company transfers the city’s trash to the city’s landfill located in Harrison.
Silvers said the cost of recycling will become less expensive as more Chattanoogans participate. That way trucks travel the same distance and collect more material.
How It Works
After Chattanooga’s Recycling truck picks it up, the city’s recyclables are dumped into piles of other recyclables, cans, plastic bags, and paper at Orange Grove’s recycling center off Dodson Avenue.
The sorting begins when any bags are ripped open (an inconvenience for the facility) and the jumble is sent up to the sorting floor.
Other Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) use magnets and conveyor belts that vibrate at various frequencies to separate plastic from paper. Orange Grove employs hand sorting. While other MRFs may have shareholders to answer to, “We’re in the business to provide job training and employment opportunities for the people we serve,” said Heidi Hoffecker, director of development for Orange Grove.
Orange Grove provides services to Chattanoogans with intellectual disabilities (people with Downs syndrome, or who suffered brain injuries as children, for example) educating them, providing housing and jobs.
The facility stared recycling for some of the city’s businesses in 1988, sorting out glass and aluminum. Four years later, the city started a recycling pilot program picking up recyclables for 5,000 households and Orange Grove became the MRF.
Recyclables move around the room in a conveyor belt, and workers pick out recyclables and drop them onto the floor below. First, out comes the bags and light, filmy plastic. Then, the cardboard. And when the recyclables turn their first corner of the room, workers pick out the paper, drop them into chute and paper flutters down to the floor below. Workers continue sorting out the various plastics until almost nothing on the conveyor is left.
From July 2015 to December, Orange Grove processed an average of 432 tons of recyclables a month. That’s almost double that of what the facility handled June of 2014 when it was handling about 222 tons.
A worker in a Bobcat bulldozer shoves the sorted fiber recyclables, whether it be mixed paper, cardboard into an industrial baler, which squeezes out bales of office memos, homework and other newspaper bound with wire. After Orange Grove collects enough bales to fit onto an 18-wheeler container, it calls various facilities. It sold mixed paper in December for $0.02875 a pound.
Currently, the facility is planning to update its sorting operation. It has $1.1 million pledged or collected out of the $1.6 million it needs for updates like, putting in a new concrete tipping floor, installing vacuums to suck up plastic bags, and machines that would help collect the glass. That also is being funded with a grant from the TDEC. Even with the machines, Orange Grove will add jobs to its operation.
Lean Times in the Recycling Business
For Michael Walton, the recycling business is too volatile. “It’s a business I’d never get into,” said the executive director for Green Spaces, a Chattanooga-based organization that advocates for sustainable living. Recyclers are competing against raw materials—materials purer than what they have to offer.
The low oil prices benefit consumers at the gas pump, but it also means it’s more inexpensive to create new plastic with crude oil. While the price of oil will eventually rise, it’s “pinching recyclers,” in the meantime, Walton said. “It’s squeezing them.” Smaller recyclers are going out of business. Larger recyclers that have the luxury of stockpiling their materials are waiting until prices rise again.
Glass is particularly difficult to sell, Walton said. For example, Orange Grove makes the least amount of money on glass. It sold clear glass for 1.6 cents per pound in December.
Because the city of Chattanooga sells most of the recyclables gathered at the collection centers, it’s seen a 20 percent drop in the price of materials in the last year. Chattanooga, however, pays Orange Grove $15 a ton to handle the glass collected at the centers. It goes to such businesses as Strategic Materials in Atlanta. According to Hoffecker, it is the only glass in the area uncontaminated enough for the company to purchase.
Any kind of recycling is more valuable when there’s a clean stream, Walton said. Yet Orange Grove deals with bits of food and discovered items like clothes, diapers, Christmas trees, dead cats and electronics.
WestRock is both MRF and international packaging company. It has 275 locations around the world, 23 recycling facilities, and the company’s annual report says it operates a packaging mill here.
WestRock declined The Pulse’s request for an interview, but its website described what it would accept from another recycler in order to turn the materials into new products. It will not accept any mixed paper that has food waste, poisonous materials and any shipments that contain medical or hazardous waste. The specification said WestRock would accept bales that had items such as dirt, plastic bags, cans, but the contaminants could not make up more than one percent of the bale.
Outthrows could make up to five percent of the shipment. These are similar recyclable materials—cardboard, paper and other fibrous materials. When WestRock is recycling newspaper, outthrow in the bales included unbleached paper. When the mill recycled corrugated cardboard, newspaper and office paper was regarded as outthrow.
Prepared for a Recycling Future?
The City of Chattanooga is better prepared for the future than they were three years ago, Walton said. It provides recycling bins for free to any resident that calls 311. But when it comes to encouraging residents to recycle more, there’s only so much a city can do.
“People here, they prefer carrots to sticks,” Walton said about the incentives to recycle. Bag taxes to pay for recycling pickup, which might work in places like Switzerland, would encourage illegal dumping here.
And when the local landfills finally fill, there are other ways of reducing the waste. Plasma gasification plants, which are still relatively rare, converts waste into nontoxic gas, the incombustible materials into slag.
Sevier County employs in-vessel digesters, where trash is thrown in rotating drums to compost all the organic material. According to the city of Gatlinburg, the county’s recycling rate is 70 percent—the highest rate in Tennessee.
“There’s so many pieces to this large puzzle,” Walton said. “It calls on people, ultimately, to get us to the future we decide we want.”
Oh, and since you are at the end, look for a blue bin. Turn this paper into another newspaper. Make it go ‘round again.