Knoxville's New Curbside Recycling Program Gets Off to a Good Start

A month since rollout began Oct. 3, the city's new, free, curbside recycling program has posted big numbers and encountered only a few problems.

Almost 17,000 residences had their first pick-up in the first two weeks, and have spared the landfill and Knoxville's ordinary garbage collection around 100 tons of recyclable trash each week. The first couple of weeks did involve more volume—people had saved up since receiving the carts weeks earlier, says David Brace, Knoxville's deputy director of Public Service.

There were also a few contaminating additions to the big brown carts furnished free to city households—like lifetime collections of wire coat hangers and car windshields spotted on one South Knoxville route. But that's easy enough to take in stride, says Brace: "The first few months, it's a learning curve. There were already 3,500 people paying for the former program who were absorbed into this one, and they knew how to do it. But another 13,000-plus are going to have to learn."

The initial 17,000 were people who had signed up pre-Aug. 14, all from households inside the city and apartment complexes of fewer than four units. A second rollout will occur in early January, and will include the remaining 2,427 who signed up between Aug. 15 and Nov. 1, and any more who enlist, up to a total of 20,000—as of this writing, 573 spots are still open.

As to those little glitches, one is that bimonthly recycling and weekly trash pick-up could not be coordinated in every instance, since only a percentage of the city's households do both, so some households will have to establish two separate pick-up routines. Some folks fretted when their garbage was picked up later in the day than they were used to, and others didn't understand that they had to actively sign up for the RecycleBank rewards program to start earning points-per-pound of recycling (redeemable for coupons and discounts like free chocolate bars from International Delicacies for 150 points, or a reusable logo bag from Three Rivers Market for 10 points).

The issue with the widest scope didn't even involve curbside recycling per se, but an adjustment to another program that kicked off at the same time. Previously, 15,000 households received back-door garbage collection, a service discontinued Oct. 3 except for those with a demonstrated need. The savings help pay for the curbside recycling program. Despite four public meetings, fliers, public service announcements, and television news spots, Brace says some of the customers affected were still caught unaware. "We got a lot of calls," he says. "But in all, 311 fielded just 770 calls this entire month that had to do with waste collection. We're considering that a good percentage."

Brace says it's a little too early to say long-term, but October data indicates that the curbside program's had little impact on the city's 10 drop-off recycling centers. "We're probably not going to see a huge drop-off, because a lot of small businesses and county residences are still using them."

On the plus side, that means the recycling picked up was a pretty high percentage of stuff that would have made it to a landfill if the program was not in place, which is the kind of achievement that has entities like the American Beverage Association recognizing Mayor Daniel Brown and Gov. Bill Haslam for the program Oct. 14, and Knoxville being named a Model City by the Climate Group's Recycle Together initiative, which called Knoxville's new system "state of the art."

The 20,000 participation number may be adjusted as the city gets further into the program, says Brace.

"We're not sure if that's the correct number, but we had to start somewhere since we didn't have an unlimited budget," he says. "My plan right now is to see the demand. If we have added demand, we may need to go above the 20,000, but we'll need a couple of years to fully understand the impact."

As well as anticipating dealing with a new city administration in 2012, Brace says 2016 is an important date for the program. "The year 2016 is a big time for solid waste in Knoxville—its the first time we'll be bidding out recycling and garbage collection as a single contract. Our timing is pretty good—we've got our toe in the water, and time to work the bugs out before we blink and it's 2015 and time to start getting bids."

Tips for Curbside Recycling

• If you haven't already signed up, there are still almost 600 slots open; call 311 or go to But note: The program is limited to households in the city limits of Knoxville that receive weekly garbage collection, and are not part of apartments of more than four units or the Central Business Improvement District.

• If you're trying to call 311 from a cell or trunk line, the number is 215-4311.

• If you have the program, hustle up if you want the rewards. While you can opt in at any time, the rewards are based on your recycling volume—but they're not retroactive. Ideally, you'll still have the PIN number that came with the cart, but if you don't, there's a simple retrieval based on your address.

• You'll need access to a printer for some RecycleBank "instant awards," and will need to load a program that will print coupons with bar codes.

• Those in the CBID who aren't happy with the locations of the common, single-stream carts need to contact the program through 311. "We're willing to place carts wherever they're needed, and ideally will be removing garbage collection bins and replacing them with more recycling carts in the CBID over time," says Brace.

• If you have a cart, it needs to be at the curb no later than 7 a.m. the day of collection.

• You can't recycle certain items in the carts. They include aluminum foil, batteries, ceramics, dishes, electronics, food waste, hazardous waste, light bulbs, medical waste, mirrors, plastic bags, shrink wrap, Styrofoam, trash, window glass, or yard waste. Some of these items are, indeed, recyclable, says Brace. "Just not with this program—there may not be a regional or local market for them."