Co-Author Matt Todd, Senior Consultant

Co-Author Matt Todd, Senior Consultant

With a mission of uniting the public and private sector to drive the recovery of recyclable materials, the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC) is zeroing in on Tennessee for its most recent economic impact exercise. An established recycling force in this 11-state region, the current task at hand focuses on assisting the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) in developing data rich and visual-heavy representations of the state’s recycling economy, material flow and the potential recycling and economic growth that could result from increased recovery of recyclables. This work has created the opportunity to look at the effect diversion has on the recycling economy and ultimately how recycling can play a positive role in economic development.

Connecting recycling and manufacturing

Value is generated as recyclable material moves from generation to collection, processing and end markets. The value-add at each step along the way is what drives the recycling economy. The more volume available, the larger the economic impact of material diversion.

The critical mass for economic development around recycling is driven by access. Access is a driver that can impact diversion. And married with education, outreach and incentive programs around recycling, access will impact diversion for the long term. And that long-term diversion performance will drive economic development around materials management. Economic development is jobs and investments that are local in scale and function as utility-based operations that scale up as a region grows.

The combination of value and access will move the needle on economic development around recycling. The successful combination of these elements will create the margins needed to make the recycling economy thrive. Tennessee is poised to put the model of sustainable materials management into play.

Looking at value

Value comes at different points along the recycling spectrum depend- ing on where you are in the process. For some there is value in landfill diversion, for others value isn’t created until you have market-ready commodities. Still others do not see value until they have a clean- process-ready feedstock to meet their industrial needs. To illustrate the value of recycling, SERDC started with highlighting the negative value that shows up in the disposed waste stream.

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Disposal rates for recyclables signal an opportunity

Tennessee’s state disposal and recycling data together with waste composition data from multiple states and municipalities across the country were used to develop a data set on a county-by-county basis for Tennessee. The goal for the information gathered was to determine the total tonnage disposed for five focus materials

– paper, plastics, aluminum, steel and glass

– in the residential waste stream for each county in Tennessee.

  • Total waste disposal in Tennessee in 2011 was approximately  7.2 million tons. Residential disposal is taken as a percentage of total waste disposed in the state.
  • Using estimates from county annual solid waste reports and other data, SERDC determined that statewide disposal from the residential sector was approximately 3.3 million tons.
  • This represents about 46 percent of total disposal. The focus materials in the disposed residential waste stream total just over 1.1 million tons.

Material in the disposed waste stream creates negative value

The disposal data produced by SERDC is used with recycling market commodity prices to develop an estimate of the value for the focus materials currently disposed in the residential waste stream.

  • Annual residential disposal of 3.3 million tons was converted to pounds. This equals 6.6 billion pounds per year of residential disposal. Focus material was taken as a percent of total residential disposal. The pricing data was calculated using dollars-per-pound averages for 2012, and totals about $180.3 million for all the focus material in the residential portion of the waste stream (See Table 1).

The market value calculation is designed to illustrate part of the economic impact due to the recovery of these materials. As these com- modities move up the value chain, their market price grows as value is added. Depending on the material, the multiplier can vary. This is the margin that creates the recycling economy, and provides the backbone for a green supply chain in the manufacturing of goods.

Recovered material creates added value

Screen shot 2014-02-07 at 2.09.55 PMAt each of the stops along the way, value is added.  A secondary plastics processor might turn baled PET bottles into clean PET pellets or flake.

  • The plastics processor will buy the material from a MRF at the market rate for baled PET bottles, approximately $0.20/lb.
  • After they grind, clean and pelletize the PET, they can then sell it to a blow molder or yarn manufacturer for the market rate for this material. Depend- ing on the market, this price could be in the ballpark of $0.70/lb.  The PET flake or pellet can then be consumed for many uses.
  • One use is conversion to a polyester staple fiber with the value pushing up into the range of $0.90 to $1.40/lb.

These increased margins are what create the value in the recyclable material that’s collected at curbside.

SERDC has provided end-user profiles to showcase the volume, type, and value of the material consumed and required by various industries in Tennessee, from the production of aluminum cans and cardboard boxes to raw materials for the auto industry (see Figure 1).


Without access, recovery is a loss

Access to convenient recycling drives participation, volume and efficiency. Community access to recycling is impacted by the process- ing infrastructure that exists as well as the collection opportunities that are available.

Community collection is a driver

Material in the residential waste stream is generated in communities across Tennessee from urban centers, like Nashville and Memphis, to suburban and rural communities, like East Ridge and Lewisburg.

SERDC has developed community profiles for a diverse collection of municipal and county recycling programs. These profiles are meant to discuss various methods used for residential recovery, and highlight options to divert more material and grow the recycling economy in Tennessee.

Screen shot 2014-02-07 at 2.53.10 PMProcessing infrastructure can provide support

SERDC has also mapped the processing infrastructure in Tennessee, from county-run baling operations to privately-run materials recovery facilities (MRF) operations. Tennessee has a dependable network of MRFs and baling operations across the state (See Figure 2 on page 30). There is especially good development of MRF’s in the popula- tion centers across Tennessee.  There is a great opportunity for the residential sector to drive growth in the recycling economy through increased diversion throughout this network.  There is also opportunity to feed into the MRF infrastructure through a hub-and-spoke approach in more rural areas of the state.

With access to this infrastructure, communities can more realistically look to rollcarts and single-stream collection as a core to their recycling services.  Local governments can focus their investment on collection and education, and private sector firms or larger municipalities through partnerships can invest in the processing infrastructure needed to generate commodity-grade products.

Profiling population density

An increase in the diversion of material for use in the Tennessee recycling economy will drive the investment in additional MRF capacity, either through expansion of existing facilities or the development of new infrastructure.

Supply impact, investment and integration

MRF access near population centers will create the infrastructure to grow diversion and push material into the recycling economy.  Across the state, local communities have varied programs collecting a range of different materials.  Some include glass, others don’t.  Some collect all plastic, others just plastic bottles. A growing number of communities have moved to single-stream collection programs, others still source-separate.  Some single-stream programs accept cartons (gable-top containers and juice/wine/soup  boxes) – which are a growing portion of the waste stream – and others do not.

Moving toward a processing model that involves a network of single-stream MRFs is one strategy to drive more diversion. At this time, only 44 cities and towns in 26 counties collect recycling through curbside recycling programs, and only 38 of those collect material com- mingled. The remaining counties and municipalities rely on varied programs designed around convenience sites and recycling drop-off locations (see Table 2).

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Integration across Tennessee will help to broaden the list of materials collected, drive more diversion and create the critical mass to grow the recycling economy. The potential for increased diversion from residential recycling programs could drive economic growth from this sector.

Screen shot 2014-02-07 at 2.11.19 PMPrioritizing pockets of growth

Tennessee is well positioned  to take advantage of their infrastructure to drive access and economic development. The state understands the investments needed on the local level for successful diversion.  There needs to be an effort focused around integration of the exist- ing infrastructure to push recovered material into the marketplace.

The economic growth will come from the market value of recovered material, investment in collection and processing infrastructure, job growth, efficiencies in transport and collection,  as well as decreased disposal costs for local government. See Figure 3 for details on the high-level economic impact per 10,000 tons of additional diversion.


The road map for integration can be de- veloped through the solid waste planning process. Sustainable materials management and integration of recycling and invest- ments in recycling will be an important piece of this planning. Integration will involve input from the public and private sector, as well as investment planning on the part of municipalities, industry and public/private partnerships.


Investment will occur at the local level around collection infrastructure. Investment will occur in the private sector around primary and secondary processing, with industrial development around product specific manufacturing to feed regional industrial material needs.


Jobs are created as access drives diversion, investment and value. The higher material moves along the value chain, the greater the impact around job creation.

Modern solid waste reporting, together with GIS data, provides tools for the municipalities, counties and TDEC to accurately and objectively develop a material management plan. A plan that integrates the many existing resources and capital infrastructure to provide for improved recycling access.  Building collaboratively upon existing resources will minimize the need for additional capital investment. Using these available tools to develop advanced solid waste and recycling plans will increase material capture, leading to solid job growth in Tennessee.

 Matt Todd is a project consultant for Resource Recycling Systems. Resource Recycling Systems is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has served in a support role for SERDC to develop a roadmap for the lifecycle of material in Tennessee’s recycling economy. Matt can be reached at

Will Sagar is executive director with the SERDC. He can be reached at will.sagar@

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