Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Recycling Lives on in Nashville (For Now)

Published in Blog. Tags: .

Recycling Nashville Plastic Aluminum

I’m trying to place why I find the continued implementation of recycling programs so interesting. Thinking back a little, while growing up in Calgary we had recycling, but the majority of my memories surround the “bottle depot.” These were facilities around town that specifically took glass bottles, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans. When buying soda, juice, or beer you paid a small deposit on the container, and when you returned it you got the deposit back. When I lived in Iowa, Walmarts there had collecting receptacles which acted similarly, collecting recyclables and spitting out money. It makes sense so long as the products being recycled have value, or the city is willing to subsidize the process in the name of sustainability. Either way, something within me just feels like it’s the right thing to do. Acting on feelings alone can be dangerous though.

Broad single stream recycling programs run differently than those bottle depots, and it was only about a month ago that I learned that a significant portion of items brandished with the universal “recycling logo” are not actually recyclable given the limitations of our current recycling stream. (These items are considered “contaminates,” no different than soiled recyclables or actual garbage which is disposed of in a recycling pickup bin.) This, in part, is why clam shell containers any many other plastics bearing the symbol are nothing more than landfill fodder even if they get shipped off in someone’s curbside recycling pickup. The more contamination there is, the more processing is needed (I don’t live in a community with curbside pickup, but instead drive my recyclables to a drop-off site—the contamination there is disheartening), and the more processing which is needed, the more it costs cities to recycle. This brings us to this week’s city council meeting which addressed the future of the recycling program in Nashville given those increased costs.

The Tennessean’s Yihyun Jeong reports that Nashville will extend its contract with Waste Management for five more years, adding some terms of the agreement.

“Under the renewed $2.25 million, 5-year agreement for increased recycling—which council members voted to move along Tuesday for final approval on May 5—Metro will pay higher processing fees. But the city will get a higher percentage of the returns when Waste Management sells the materials to mills: a 70-30 split, instead of the current even divide.”

Nashville Public Radio’s Tony Gonzalez quotes Metro Public Works assistant director, Sharon Smith, who confirmed why the expense to the city is increasing.

“None of us are happy that our costs are going to go up. […] But [Waste Management was] spending more. They were having to do a lot more to remove contamination than they’ve had to in the past.”

I can’t help but wonder if there are certain measures the city isn’t taking that are necessary evils to consider as the global demand for recyclables shrivels and local processing costs rise. Maybe there are only certain select items that are financially feasible to recycle now, no matter how strange it feels to toss them in the trash?

Besides sorting out non-recyclable plastics, with the price of mixed paper hovering somewhere around $0/ton and cardboard/corrugated containers in $25-30/ton range, the economic cost would seem a wash there, too (or even worse when recognizing the built-in environmental costs of shipping, transporting, sorting, and processing these materials before they once again become functional). Whatever Waste Management is able to sell should be the only items Nashvillians recycle. Besides that, we’re not taking much of a different stand as a city like Cleveland which is enforcing recycling, but routing it all to the landfill anyways. Right now we’re paying a company to sort through our trash, only to then sell a fraction of it and put the rest of it in the landfill. We might not be thinking big enough with how much of a change this system needs.