Pitching In

Will Knoxvillians ever take trash seriously? Meet a few who are leading local efforts to recycle/reuse.

It saves energy, conserves resources, and extends valuable—and expensive—landfill accommodations. With 10 handy collection centers studding the Knoxville area, nine more across the county, and the for-profit Waste Connections happy to pick it all up in one big bin from your curbside, recycling has never been more convenient.

Who wouldn't want to save and sort and drop off and save the earth?

That answer would be, "lots and lots of Knoxvillians." John Homa, Solid Waste project manager for the City of Knoxville, estimates that the amount recycled in Knoxville equals just 9 or 10 percent of the material that makes it to the landfill.

The non-profit Knoxville Recycling Coalition, active in Knoxville for more than 20 years, uses a more vivid example: "According to the EPA, people in the U.S. generate an average of 4.6 pounds of garbage per person per day," says executive director Frank Sewell. "If we were to take just Tennessee's waste alone, we could fill Neyland Stadium to the brim every two weeks. Management of waste is a real problem, and too many of us in this area think of the landfill as a solution, when it's not."

Sewell and three full-time assistants are only a few of the Knoxvillians leading by example to reduce waste and increase local recycling efforts. They're joined by individuals, other non-profits, and even some companies with a pure profit motive. Each is intent on keeping waste from reaching the local "tomb for trash," Chestnut Ridge Landfill just outside city limits in Heiskell—and maybe rescuing a few other Knoxvillians from complacency along the way.


The RockTenn Recycling sorting staff is waiting, with hats and gloves. Bags come down the main conveyor belt. The workers are intent, ripping a bag, separating out the fiber, dropping it to another belt. A steel magnet sucks out the metal, mostly cans, a few rods and a couple of tins, and kicks it into another shoot.

People, 14 of them, keep sorting, the clumps of material moving to more belts, another shoot. Then the finale: An eddy current swooshes what's left of the single stream into the trash, but first it spits the aluminum cans over the opening, into a giant bin.

This is what goes on in the typical-looking warehouse on Proctor Road, tucked behind the glass-and-whitewashed brick News Sentinel building. "We put in $600,000 of equipment to be able to handle single stream recycling—Waste Connections does the hauling, from residential customers in Oak Ridge, Jefferson City, and Knox County, and we do the segregating," says Derek Senter, fiber procurement representative for RockTenn, which is one of seven area bulk recycling centers. "The whole thing came to be because our general manager, Tom Spriggs, who started in late '06, he had the feeling, ‘If we build it, they will come.' We built the system with the ability to upgrade, to increase automation as needed so we can increase the flow as it goes."

They'll likely need the upgrade. Just since its start in March, the Waste Connections program is already delivering 35 to 40 tons of single-stream recyclables per day. In a sheer stroke of good karma, the new business has allowed RockTenn to partner with Goodwill Industries, hiring 14 of its workers in March—workers trained and mentored with funds Goodwill raised at its thrift stores, which will also keep mass tonnage from reaching the landfill.

This is an unusual arrangement for RockTenn, which employs 35 and is the local component of a sprawling conglomerate headquartered in Norcross, Ga., with more than 100 plants, mills, and sales offices located throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.

Most of the national and local business is focused on cardboard. "We process roughly 6,500 tons of cardboard a month—the city just brings in some of that," says Senter, whose sales territory extends to Chattanooga, Nashville, and Lexington, Ky. "We do a big industrial business, those eight-yard cardboard bins at the mall, places like that. Turkey Creek's got quite a few bins."

Senter, who's worked in procurement and sales at UPS and moonlights as a radio DJ on WUTK 90.3's The Fun House, takes the lead in finding the best markets to re-sell the recyclables. Cardboard, for example, goes to Tamko usually, and they use it to make roofing paper. Now that they've added a single-stream business, Senter and RockTenn also have to be concerned with selling plastic, aluminum, steel and such, in a market where every grade dropped 50 percent or more in value last November.

"It's been horrible industry-wide," says Senter. "Although since that initial drop, everything's come up somewhat. The mixed paper has done the worst. It was at $90 a ton in October, and in November it dropped to $5. Now it's up to $15."

Glass, says Senter, has always been an issue. "Really, the value on it is next to nothing. If we send a load for, say, sand trap sands, the processors will charge us, and we have to pay to have it hauled. It's not done to make money on its own—it's necessary for us to do so we can provide the single stream service."

Other materials separated from the single stream can be profitable. "For aluminum, we can stay local," he says. "I've got several buyers, and it's just a matter of who's offering the best price at the time. PET bottles go to various carpet manufacturers; they make carpet fiber out of it. Most of them go to Georgia."

The RockTenn parent company continues to do very well in balancing resale and processing of recyclables. Its adjusted earnings per diluted share for the quarter ending Dec. 31 increased 88 percent over the prior year quarter. Senter is up-front about his company's profit motive.

"Industrial folks do recycling for the money," he says. "As far as you or me at home, people just want to be able to recycle. I don't think the plunging cost of re-sale hurt the individual's motivation. And no matter what, kids are talking about it at school, and coming home and laying it on their parents, ‘Mommy, daddy, why are we throwing those cans in the trash?' I've seen residential recycling increase dramatically in the four years I've been at RockTenn, and I think kids are one of the main reasons why."


It's near noon on a Thursday, and the Community Chest Thrift Store next to FISH Hospitality Pantries off Central Street is packed. The approximate size of the grocery store dairy aisle, it's hosting 12 bargain hunters.

One woman, well-groomed and neat, dressed for work, is checking out. "That's one, two, three dollars—shirt, skirt, jacket," counts out the clerk, Sandy Davis, cheerful and professional, dressed in a flowered blouse. "Are you wearing the purchase?"

"Yes," says the customer. "My button wouldn't button, so I came on lunch hour to get a replacement outfit."

"I love this store," the woman shouts over her shoulder as she pushes out to the packed gravel parking lot.

Clothing is a particular thorn in the environmentalist's side. Mass-production prices and availability have turned used textiles into a throw-away commodity, and absent any reasonably priced use for recycled fibers or any organized way of delivering local textiles to a recycler, clothing that's tossed is an inevitable addition to the landfill. According to the Recycled Textile Association, textile waste is 7.5 billion pounds annually, representing 10 pounds for every person in the country, and taking up about 4 percent of landfill space.

Stores like the Community Chest, an offshoot of the FISH Pantries, tend to be focused on serving the needy, but they've always diminished the amount of clothing going to the landfill—and are making even more of an impact in the past year or so.

Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries thrift store chain has grown from two to five stores in just three years, for example, with the most recent, on Merchants Road, opening in February, and further additions scheduled in the next year or so. In 2007 Goodwill Industries-Knoxville, Inc., generated enough income from store sales in 15 counties to train around 2,000 people who face barriers to employment.

Keeping up with the trend, both the FISH Pantries Community Chest, which opened in late 2007, and its sister store in Powell, open for 10 years now, are thriving. "We're in a store that's twice as big as the one we started in," says employee and Board of Directors member Nancy George. "We have twice as many donations and customers as we used to­—24 racks of clothes, maybe 40 or 50 pairs of shoes at a given time."

It doesn't take an economics professor to figure out that the poor economy is bringing in more people interested in low-cost clothing. "It's not just the poor, but families in other economic ranges who are struggling," says George.

At the same time, it's more acceptable, even sort of trendy, to purchase clothes at a thrift store than it was a decade, or even a couple of years, ago, says George. "We have customers coming in from Crown college and all the Powell High School kids. We now carry a line of junior clothing, denim, prom dresses, clothing from all the places teenagers shop."

Oddly enough, donations haven't suffered due to the economy, and George says they may even be on the rise. "We always have a little lag time in late winter, before the yard sales get going again, but other than that, we're getting lots. If donated items are not quite up to what we put out, we give the clothes away to a church in Campbell County, so nothing goes to waste. It's all getting used."

While the environment takes a back seat to providing low-cost clothing for the needy at her store, the two are intertwined, says George. "Helping people out and being good stewards of the earth's resources, what we're given in life—I think they're right up there next to each other."

Back at Scott Avenue, Davis is ringing up another customer, a teen girl who's bought a dress, pants, and a waffle-texture plus-size shirt for her mother. Three dollars.

"It's okay if you don't want to give me a bag," says the girl, trying to be polite.

"Oh, don't you worry, our donors bring us plenty of bags," says Davis, with a twinkle. "And of course, when they went out of business, we got a whole lot more from Goody's."


Frank Sewell strongly believes it's important to preserve whenever it's within your power.

Even a poster of Usher.

A couple of his assistants at the Knoxville Recycling Coalition found the 11-inch-by-17-inch treasure, with the R&B star looking cuddly and wearing a pink shirt no less, in a bin of mixed paper retrieved from a local office. "I come in one day and there it is," Sewell explains in a slow drawl. "Just had to have it for me, they said. They even call me Usher. I have no idea why."

And yet the poster stays, dominating Sewell's office wall in the cottage that serves as KRC headquarters off Sutherland Avenue.

Sewell, usually found in worn jeans, work boots, and gray mustache, somehow manages to reconcile literally decades as a "greenie," 15 years of it spent as the Solid Waste Director for Anderson County, with an aggressive, upstart attitude towards the latest recycling innovations.

He participated in organizing the first Earth Day celebration at Oak Ridge High School in 1970, for example, but he's also attuned to the need for styrofoam recycling, and has recently introduced a consultation service through KRC that helps organizations arrange for low- or zero-waste events in Knoxville. And he's outspoken about the limits of recycling. "Like landfills, recycling is only a tool," he says. "The real solution is people."

Sewell is a big advocate of "precycling"—reducing solid waste production at the source, before the consumer makes purchases. "Always buy the biggest version of a product that you'll use, that's one good example," he says. "Ask yourself, ‘Did a lot of waste go into the production of this product?'"

A seemingly radical piece of advice offered by Sewell: Don't necessarily buy biodegradeable products. "If they're just going to the landfill, they won't break down, so if they're not the smaller or less expensive option, you might as well buy the product that's not biodegradeable," he says. One example: buying a bunch of broccoli with stalks you'll just throw in the trash instead of a smaller package of frozen.

Sewell had served on KRC's board for five years before becoming executive director in the summer of 2007, and in his time the group has doubled its reach to 36,600 people, begun promoting home composting, and maintained a customer base of 235 businesses in Knox, Anderson, and Blount counties that pay a minimal fee for recyclable removal. Last year, KRC collected more than a million pounds of paper and around 2,000 pounds of electronics otherwise designated for the landfill.

Always, Sewell would like to be doing more, including eventual styrofoam recycling. "I've been researching styrofoam, and it is now possible to reduce it chemically," says Sewell. "Where my daughter lives, in the ‘real world' of Seattle, there are even places that will accept it. The primary issue is transportation."

Once the market for re-selling recyclable materials has improved and KRC can make enough money, Sewell plans for them to move to a larger facility, one that would have enough space for styrofoam drop offs.

"This situation will turn around," he says. "It always has. I know it will again."


Kristin Ely was enthusiastic when she read about the RecycleBank program being offered by Waste Connections to residential recyclers starting in March. Two and a half points for every pound of recyclables, calculated by microchip and then cashed in for rewards ranging from a free jar of baby food for 50 points to a $10 gift certificate for most any type of retailer for 1,250 points.

"I should have known that it was too good to be true," she says. "It turns out you have to have their trash pick-up service to qualify."

Ely, who lives in West Knoxville with her husband and 17-year-old daughter, says she would not feel right paying $35 a month to have the trash collected. "In a week, I don't have a bag of garbage," she says. "I'd say I have a bag every three weeks, because I pretty much recycle everything."

The family eats most their meals at home, and Ely tries to cook from scratch with fresh vegetables, or using ingredients from cans that can be recycled.

A casual compost pile receives their meager food scraps. "I'll be honest, the animals usually eat most of it before it gets to a garden," she says.

Ely hauls glass, plastic, mixed paper, and metal and aluminum cans to a West Knoxville collection center twice a month. "It's inconvenient and overcrowded, but I do it anyway," she says. "Mixed paper is a lot of it, junk mail. That's my bin that's always full. I work downtown as a paralegal, and the collection center there is calm and isn't used much. I'd put the stuff in the car and take it there but then I'd probably forget it and the car would stink."

A lifelong Knoxvillian, Ely wishes local government was more supportive of recycling. "My sister's a professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and they not only have pick-up for no extra money, you don't even have to sort the recyclables. And they provide a separate bin for green waste.

"We go skiing out West and they have bins for plastic and aluminum just on the streets, like when we went to Jackson Hole, last year. Or Oak Ridge. They've been offering curbside recycling for years, and they're just 20 minutes from here."

She hasn't always been this dedicated.

"We've really been recycling seriously only for about a year," she says. "Our anniversary is on New Year's Eve, and that's when we started. I went and bought the bins at Target and all. I had recycled years ago, in the '90s, and it was even harder then. There weren't as many facilities to take it to. They experimented with pick-up, but it didn't work out. Of course, they still don't pick up unless you pay extra."

Ely was inspired to resume recycling by things she saw in the media. "I feel like I'm helping the earth," she says. "It just makes me feel better in general.

"I'm not that hardcore. I don't go to extremes, like recycling paper napkins. I have been in situations where I buy styrofoam. When I'm buying meat, I have no choice. It's not like there are butchers any more. The Fresh Market wraps meat in paper, but I can't always shop there."

She enters any grocery store armed with cloth grocery bags. "They're bigger, and more convenient," she says. "I don't think the kids who bag like it much, but they still do it."

At home, too, it's not all willing, friendly self-sacrifice, she says. "It's hard to tell other people what to do. To rinse things out­—that doesn't always happen. But slowly, you just get in the habit. Rinse it out, it goes in the bin."

She does get agitated by those she sees who won't do their part. "I do have a pet peeve," she says. "When fall comes around and people put their yard waste, their leaves, into bags. Someone in the neighborhood had like 30 bags for the trash people to come pick up. That just kind of blows my mind."

But she won't succumb to the feeling that since the impact she's making is so minimal, it's not worth the trouble. "I can't feel that way," she says. "I have to have a positive outlook. Every little bit helps—that's the same way it is with everything."