In a state with a trashy reputation among the green set, changes are under way.
Charlie Wetherington couldn’t readily explain why he throws away his aluminum cans, newspapers and plastic bottles instead of recycling them.
“I guess I’m just lazy,” the South Nashville resident finally said, admitting his green recycling cart has sat in his driveway for months because remodelers put debris in it. “I’m all for recycling. I did it (through a mandatory curbside recycling program) when I was in Florida, but I guess I got out of the habit here. I’d get back into it if I knew how.”
Wetherington isn’t alone. Nearly 1 out of every 3 households where Curby, Nashville’s curbside recycling program, is available doesn’t participate.
That mystifies recycling officials, who say they’ve made it as easy, convenient and inexpensive as possible for residents to recycle. But even free carts and home pickups have yet to overcome recycling’s struggles to gain traction in the Volunteer State.
“Statewide, we still have a long ways to go,” said Larry Christley, who tracks solid waste and recycling efforts for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Recycling officials, advocates and critics proffer various possible causes for that, including low landfill disposal fees, apathy among residents, and elected officials’ unwillingness to make recycling mandatory for political or financial reasons. But today, as the nation celebrates Earth Day, they say changes are ahead — from charging for extra garbage carts to establishing regional collection points in rural areas — that will help boost recycling’s profile among Tennesseans.
Measuring sticks differ
While there is general consensus that Tennessee can do better in recycling, there’s disagreement on how well the state is doing now. Recycling advocates generally give Tennessee poor marks, while state and local recycling officials say Tennessee is faring well.
Both could be right — because there is no single measuring stick to compare the effectiveness of recycling efforts.
“Few states or local governments define recycling in the same way, use the same approach for measuring recycling rates, or include the same materials in their rates,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in offering voluntary guidelines.
Some have tried to fill the void. The most comprehensive is The State of Garbage in America, a biennial study by BioCyclemagazine and Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center that was launched in 1989.
In that study, which is based on an analysis of data supplied by states, Tennessee fares poorly.
The most recent report said Tennessee’s recycling rate of 4.64 percent in 2008 was eighth lowest nationally, behind the District of Columbia, Louisiana and several sparsely populated Western states. An updated study based on 2010 figures has not been released.
“The South, especially Tennessee, generally has not been a hub for recycling,” said Gail Rosson, executive director of the Recycling Marketing Cooperative for Tennessee. “I get calls all the time from people saying, ‘I just moved here from another state — why don’t you recycle?’ ”
State officials argue that a better measure is the diversion rate, or how much waste is kept out of municipal landfills through a combination of recycling, composting, hazardous waste collection and other methods. Almost half of the state’s trash is diverted using that basis, officials say.
That’s on par with the national average, evidence of the state’s success, they argue.
“Tennessee is doing a good job on many fronts,” said Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council, a consortium of 11 states, including Tennessee.
Critics say the state’s diversion figure is misleading because it includes construction and demolition debris, much of which is not recycled but disposed of in separate landfills. Without that, the state’s diversion rate drops to roughly 30 percent.
“That’s crazy” that the state includes that debris in its calculation, said Bruce Wood, president of Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today (BURNT), a local advocacy group.
Such arguments have prompted an EPA pilot project aimed at developing a more standard measuring system. Tennessee and four other Southeastern states are involved in that effort.
Still, several measures show recycling is slipping in Tennessee. The state’s diversion rate and the percentage of solid waste that is recycled have fallen for three consecutive years, according to state figures. Officials attribute the drops to the recession as people scaled back their purchases.
Low priorities, low disposal costs
Just as opinions differ on how well Tennessee recycles, they also vary on why the state isn’t doing better. Some say low priorities, expectations and garbage-disposal costs hinder recycling’s growth in the Volunteer State.
Tennessee is a largely rural state, and local officials are “looking at getting school buses on the road and providing ambulances and fire service, and recycling is going to take a back seat,” said Joyce Dunlap, a TDEC solid waste program manager.
Recycling advocates contend the state also puts relatively little emphasis on recycling. They point to Tennessee’s failure to pass a bottle bill and the state’s goal of a 25 percent diversion rate, set two decades ago and now among the lowest in the country.
“The people in the state legislature and those who are elected, they’re not really interested in recycling,” said Dan Sweeton, a member of Recycling Advocates of Middle Tennessee, a grass-roots group. “I guess it’s all about a thing called money.”
Others say there’s little financial incentive to recycle as long as it’s relatively cheap to use landfills. It costs $37, on average, to dispose of a ton of garbage in a Tennessee landfill, according to TDEC. That’s below the national average of $44 a ton in 2010, the latest year available from the National Solid Wastes Management Association.
By comparison, recycling is more expensive.
“When you’re paying only $30 a ton to dispose of your trash and put it in the landfill, there’s no push to recycle,” said Marge Davis of Scenic Tennessee Inc., who has been advocating a beverage container deposit law to reduce litter and spur recycling.
Officials agree that low landfill costs inhibit recycling, but they say other factors are in play. TDEC’s Christley said recycling’s success boils down to “resources, resolve and real estate.”
“It’s kind of like a fire: You have to have oxygen, fuel and heat to have a fire,” he said. “If any one of them is missing, you don’t have a fire. Recycling’s like that too.”
Is ‘tipping point’ near?
Despite recycling’s struggles in Tennessee, there are success stories.
Only 3 percent of Sevier County’s garbage was put in landfills in 2010, state figures how. Sevier officials began composting organic material in 1992 because it accounts for more than half of the county’s garbage, according to the county’s website.
Metro Nashville diverted almost half of its garbage in 2010, slightly better than the statewide average, according to the state.
Metro said Curby trucks picked up almost 13,200 tons, and several convenience centers collected nearly 7,400 tons more, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011. So far this fiscal year, they have collected more than 14,800 tons combined.
But critics have questioned whether the curbside program is too costly and inefficient.
Metro offers Curby to roughly 120,000 homes, or about 2 out of every 5 in Davidson County. The curbside service costs Metro roughly $70 for each ton collected, while the drop-off sites cost about $20 less per ton.
“We’re catching only a tiny portion of what’s out there,” said John van der Harst, president of Recycling Advocates of Middle Tennessee. “Curby … has been a loser from the get-go.”
Metro officials say it’s impractical to attempt to collect every recyclable item possible, and they call the voluntary program a success.
“I think this county does a good job when you look at how everything is done on a voluntary basis,” said Veronica Frazier, Metro’s beautification director.
Still, officials say they’re taking steps in hopes of doing even better.
Metro is implementing several measures aimed at increasing recycling. It already bans yard waste from regular trash collection, and will ban cardboard next year.
It also will charge those with three or more trash cans a monthly surcharge, likely in the range of $5.25 to $5.75 a can, beginning in July. The extra fee will expand in 2014 to include those with more than one can.
“I think that’s really going to be the tipping point for most people,” said Sharon Smith, a Metro waste management specialist. “People will be looking at the bottom line. If they have a choice of putting it in the brown (trash) cart and paying money or putting it in the green (recycling) cart and not paying money, most people will say, ‘I’m going to put it in the green cart.’ ”
Efforts to boost recycling also are under way elsewhere in Tennessee.
Knoxville recently launched a curbside recycling program. Also in the works: a pair of regional centers that would process recyclable items collected from nine rural counties in western Tennessee.
The state also is proposing to amend its regulations to require more-detailed local garbage disposal and recycling plans and eliminate unmanned recycling collection sites, Christley said. A June 21 public hearing has been set on the proposed changes.
Those were among the recommendations made by a task force five years ago. Other recommendations, such as penalizing counties that don’t meet waste-reduction goals, were tabled but could be proposed again later, Christley said.
“We’re at a critical crossroads right now in Tennessee as far as recycling,” he said.
Anne Paine contributed to this report.