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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Jimmy Urciuoli, left, and Mackenzie Tapley give their presentation for Green Steps during the recycling pitch program on Tuesday October 19, 2021 at Waterhouse Pavilion. Four presenters put forward various ways to improve recycling efforts in the area.

Chattanooga's beleaguered curbside recycling program will soon get a boost from a business that grinds glass into sand, another that makes composting food waste easy and an effort to better educate city residents on what can and cannot be recycled.

The pilot programs showcased Tuesday during the city's annual Startup Week have been given the green light and $3,500 to $5,000 in funding to test their ideas.

"It's crowdsourcing at its finest," Mayor Tim Kelly said after the presentations at Waterhouse Pavilion.

Curbside recycling accounts for about 80% of materials collected for recycling in the city, but the curbside program was suspended in July due to a truck driver shortage. Even when the program was running, however, much of the materials the city picked up — particularly some plastics — weren't recyclable and ended up as waste, Kelly said.

"That stuff had been going to the landfill, and it was politically inconvenient to talk about that," Kelly said.

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Startups aim to improve Chattanooga recycling

The pausing of the curbside pickup program, which will resume on Nov. 1 after the city raised employee pay to attract more drivers, was a crucial opportunity to revisit a program that needs improvement, Kelly added.

"I think it served as a really teachable moment for us all to go back and look at what was going well, what was going poorly and how we can fix it," he said. "We have a big opportunity here."

Four proposals made the cut to test out ideas for helping residents recycle more effectively and for reducing the amount of waste the city handles.

"These ideas are being implemented, the results will be measured, the city will know how it went," said Christine DiPietro, director of programs at nonprofit small-business booster the Company Lab.

The Pilot Programs

— Norm Lavoie and Michael Ryan, NewTerra: Offering easy and accessible composting to 100 households, piloting every-other-week garbage pickup.

— Brian Wright, Green for Good: Engaging the city in existing programs that collect hard-to-recycle items and donate aluminum rebates to Habitat for Humanity projects.

— Mackenzie Tapley and Jimmy Urciuoli with Green Steps: Updating educational materials about what is and isn’t recyclable.

— Chris Greenwood, Olivine Glass Crushing: Crushing recyclable glass into sand for reuse.

One of the biggest challenges to an effective recycling program is the lack of demand for used plastics that were once a desirable commodity, she said.

"The demand for these previously used materials is not what it used to be," DiPietro said. "A lot of what we think is being recycled ends up in the landfill. But people like to put things in the recycling bin."

China stopped accepting much of the plastic waste from the U.S. in 2018, said Jimmy Urciuoli with Green Steps.

"Plastics 3 through 7 are generally not recyclable, and that's something I didn't know for a long time," Urciuoli said. "This all really changed when China stopped accepting our plastic recycling in 2018. When that happened, those plastics became basically obsolete on the market."

As the market for recyclables shifts, signage and other educational materials about what is and isn't recyclable become inaccurate. Updating that information is part of the pilot program Urciuoli and Mackenzie Tapley have launched.

"As the recycling market changes, workers have been making signs out of cardboard and markers, and we can do better than this," Tapley said. "We are going to update the signs to be accurate."

The city doesn't accept glass in its curbside program and limits the types of glass it accepts at drop-off centers, but Olivine Glass Crushing can turn discarded glass into highly sought-after sand, said co-founder Chris Greenwood.

"With this pilot program, and one massive hammermill, Olivine will turn glass crushing into a primary method of recycling glass in Chattanooga," Greenwood said. "The demand for sand in construction is outpacing supply so quickly that even in the Middle East, home of the Arabian Desert, they are importing sand from as far away as Australia and Canada."

In an effort to divert food waste from landfills, where it makes up 24% of discarded material, NewTerra is seeking 100 households to enroll in a program to make composting easy and shift their garbage pickup to every other week.

Ultimately, the city's website should offer a transparent look at what is and isn't recyclable and what happens to materials that residents attempt to recycle, Kelly said.

Reducing consumption and reusing items is as important as recycling waste, and these ideas will complement the city's work to improve recycling efforts, he said.

"The notion of public entrepreneurship may sound like an oxymoron, but believe it or not, it's a thing," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

Startup Week signature events

See the full schedule at colab.co/startupweekcha.

Wednesday, Oct. 20

Job Fair: Noon-4 p.m. at Waterhouse Pavilion

Maker’s Marketplace: 5-7 p.m. at Waterhouse Pavilion

Thursday, Oct. 21

The Startup Social and Startup Awards: 6-9 p.m. at Finley Stadium

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