New year, new leaf?
The Memphis City Council's parks and environment committee recently discussed an idea to make Memphis more eco-friendly: placing recycling bins on city streets.
Last September, after returning from the Democratic National Convention, council member Barbara Swearengen Ware noticed something about Memphis.
"After spending a few days in Denver, I see now that we don't have a big emphasis on recycling," she said at the time. "Everywhere you go, there are recycling bins. It's obvious to me that we have not done a comprehensive job on recycling."
Similarly, during a National League of Cities conference in Orlando, she noticed that every hotel room included bags for recyclables.
"I thought it was a great idea," she said. "Out of all the things to gain from a conference. ... We are not getting nearly the benefit that we need to from recycling."
And so the longtime council member proposed putting recycling bins "any place people congregate."
"It's two-fold: Recycling not only will help the city and the environment, but it is also a financial benefit to the city when we recycle. We gain a lot more than we lose," she said.
According to a survey of recycling rates among the 30 most populous cities in the United States by Waste & Recycling News last March, Memphis recycles 26 percent of its total waste.
Which, in terms of the rankings, doesn't put Memphis down in the dump, but it still throws a lot of things there.
San Francisco, which recycles 69 percent of its total waste, led the rankings, followed by Portland and Los Angeles. Houston, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio had the worst recycling rates.
Annually, Memphis collects 6,000 tons of paper, 552 tons of metal, 828 tons of plastic, 1,800 tons of glass, and about 94,000 tons of yard trimmings.
In years past, the city has earned $25 for each ton of recycling, and public works director Dwan Gilliom said Memphis' recycling program was "one of the most profitable in the nation."
But because of the economic downtown — and a worldwide decline in demand for recycled materials — the company that the city contracts recently asked Memphis to pay them for recycling.
"We now have a proposal on the table that we'll just call it even," Gilliom said.
In addition to public places, parks committee chair Jim Strickland would like to see recycling bins at festivals, 5Ks, parades, and any event on public property that requires council approval.
Piggybacking on a previous initiative by former council member Dedrick Brittenum, Strickland introduced — but then held — an ordinance that would ban plastic bags at festivals and public forums and would require the groups that host them to provide recycling bins.
"You go to an event, you have a can of Coke or a bottle of water, and they're just thrown in the garbage," Strickland said. "If you offer people the opportunity to recycle, I think a good percentage will."
City recycling coordinator Andy Ashford countered that the problem with recycling bins at festivals is contamination.
"If you put a dumpster out, it looks like it's for trash," Ashford said. "Even if it says it's for recycling, people are going to put their trash in it."
But times change. When I learned that Ware was the council member who proposed the discussion on additional recycling bins, I have to say I was surprised. In the past, she hasn't always come off as a friend of the environment.
There seems to be a shift in awareness, both with the council and the public at-large. In September, the parks committee — now known as the parks and environment committee — reinstated City Hall's recycling committee. So far, that group has added recycling bins at City Hall, even giving each council member their own bin. "You know we go through a lot of paper," Strickland said.
That committee is now charged with looking into adding recycling bins in public places.
And though the city might not make money off an increase in recycling, each ton of trash diverted from a landfill saves the city $23.
"It's not just about revenue," Ashford said. "It's about savings and what the public wants."