The city of Chattanooga resumed curbside recycling collection Monday after pausing the program since July due to a driver shortage.
But questions arose in the interim about where recyclables go once they're collected from curbside bins and collection centers.
The Times Free Press sought answers to that and other questions from Chattanooga and Hamilton County, as well as other area counties and municipalities.
Q: Where are recyclable materials taken after they are picked up curbside or from local collection centers?
A: All recyclables collected in Chattanooga, from both the city's collection centers and through its curbside recycling program, go to WestRock Material Recovery Facility, officials said.
WestRock did not answer questions from the Times Free Press about what happens to the materials once they get to the facility and declined to allow a reporter and photographer to tour the facility.
"We're not able to participate on this occasion but do appreciate the consideration and outreach," WestRock spokeswoman Gisselle Pinion said by email.
According to Donald Stone, deputy administrator for the Chattanooga Department of Public Works, recyclable materials from Chattanooga are sorted at the WestRock facility and WestRock sells the marketable materials.
Materials that are not marketable, including plastics Nos. 3-7, are landfilled, though "WestRock tries to recover plastics 3-7 as much as possible," Stone said.
Unaccepted materials are processed as trash and go to the landfill, according to Stone.
Cardboard, mixed paper, glass and plastics Nos. 1 and 2 brought to Hamilton County recycling collection centers also go to WestRock, according to Mark Adams, recycling supervisor for Hamilton County.
Adams said the county stopped accepting plastics Nos. 3-7 around April 2021, when officials were informed that those plastics were being sent to the landfill because WestRock wasn't able to sell them due to lack of market value.
Some metals collected by Hamilton County go to Gerdau Metals Recycling, and newsprint goes to Greif Recycling, Adams said.
WestRock also processes recycling for Hamilton County municipalities, including the city of East Ridge and the town of Signal Mountain, as well as for Walker County and the city of Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia.
John Pless, spokesperson for Catoosa County, Georgia, said the county contracted with Santek Waste Services, which was recently purchased by Republic Services, to process its recycling.
"What Republic does with the recyclables after picking them up from us, we do not know," Pless said.
Q: Are cities and counties paid for the materials they collect?
A: Chattanooga gets some residual payments for items collected at its recycling centers, but receives no returns for its curbside program, Stone said.
Chattanooga received $435 in 2019 and $701 in 2020 in residual payments from WestRock for materials collected at city recycling centers. Payments for recyclables fluctuate based on market rates and are not broken down by item, he said.
Chattanooga pays WestRock to process its curbside recycling and does not receive compensation for those materials. WestRock increased its "tipping fee" — the amount it charges Chattanooga to process the city's recycling — from $35 to $45.40 per ton starting July 20, 2021.
Stone said the reasons behind the increased cost are "city growth, fuel, staff, vehicle operating expenses [and] increased tonnage to the landfill due to not being able to process plastics No. 3-7."
WestRock also processes curbside recycling for the city of East Ridge, which is charged $35 per ton. East Ridge does not receive compensation for its materials either, but that hasn't always been the case. City Manager Chris Dorsey said the city was paid for materials several years ago, and for the next year or two there was no cost or return.
Pless said Catoosa County does not make money from the sale of recyclables collected at its transfer station. According to the county's finance department, the county receives about $150,000 annually from Republic — which processes the county's recycling — for use of the county's transfer station and inert landfill.
Q: If part of the reason WestRock's tipping fee for Chattanooga went up in July 2021 is that WestRock is having to process more of plastics Nos. 3-7 as trash, then why is the city still collecting plastics Nos. 3-7 through its curbside program?
A: City code must be followed, and city code states that the city accepts plastics Nos. 1-7.
"However, we're rewriting city code to reflect the current market values of plastics No. 1 and 2," city spokesperson Mary Beth Ikard said. "We are in the process of improving our recycling education and outreach program to reflect the current market for plastics."
Q: How many tons of Chattanooga's curbside recycling is contaminated and processed as trash? Is there a way to verify the amounts that WestRock claims are sold to companies to be recycled, or that it processes as trash?
A: "All recyclables are dumped from other municipalities and businesses into one pile at WestRock," Ikard said. "There is no way to distinguish between city recyclables and that of other businesses/municipalities."
In May 2021, the city of Chattanooga's solid waste administrators conducted an audit of a single recycling truck in the East Brainerd area that had a contamination rate of 30%. But since there's no way to know which materials came from which municipality or business, this does not reflect the contamination rate of the city's curbside program.
Q: How much does the city of Chattanooga pay annually for recycling?
A: For 2021, the annual cost of operating the city's curbside recycling program is $789,600, and the annual cost of operating its collection centers is $602,100, according to Ikard.
The city of Chattanooga entered into a $3.6 million contract with Orange Grove to manage and operate its recycling centers from 2021-2025, according to a resolution adopted in June 2020.
WestRock was the sole company to bid on the contract to process the city's recycling, Ikard said. The contract was awarded on July 20, 2020, and expires June 30, 2025.
Chattanooga has the option to exit the contract with WestRock, she said.
Q: How many people participate in Chattanooga's curbside recycling program?
A: The city had 33,442 people signed up in 2019, which is about 18.6% of the population. Participation increased to 36,717 households in 2020, according to Stone.
Contact Emily Crisman at email@example.com.