By all accounts, Nashville’s recycling history is not one to brag about. The few efforts that have actually seen the light of day over the past 15 years or so have resulted mostly in confusion and disarray, both for the public and for the Metro entities responsible for the service.
Now, after all those years of failure, Nashville finally may be poised to tackle this increasingly important issue in one of the most comprehensive and cost-effective ways local recycling advocates could ever dream.
“We were stalled,” says Chace Anderson, a Public Works Department assistant director who’s been Nashville’s waste management and recycling go-to guy since last June. “I think we were stalled because we’d had a series of failures, and because the Thermal facility was the center of the whole waste management system. It was the gravitational pull.”
Mayor Bill Purcell is, of course, currently waging a political struggle to close the Thermal plant within the next three years or so. In the meantime, Anderson says, “We will really push recycling. We’ll have to recycle as much as possible and in a cost-efficient way. And the remainder will go to a landfill.”
Despite Nashville’s woeful recycling record, or perhaps because of it, Purcell has placed waste management and recycling among the top priorities of his administration, the result of which, if his budget passes, arguably will be Nashville’s first fully operational waste management and recycling program.
While former Mayor Phil Bredesen, who developed a much-criticized solid waste plan when he was in office, probably would beg to differ, Metro officials hold up Purcell’s plan as the first of its kind. “The city has never had an actual solidwaste management plan,” says Public Works director Randall Dunn. “We’ve kind of dabbled in recycling, but we’ve never had a comprehensive plan. This’ll be the first.”
It should go without sayingbut probably doesn’t, here in trash-happy Nashvillethat waste management and recycling go hand-in-hand, and that without a reasonable system for one, trying to make advances in the other is relatively futile. They have to be dealt with together, Metro officials say.
“That’s the only way to do it,” Dunn says. “When the subject of recycling first came up, we said to the mayor, ‘We can’t do this piecemeal. It needs to be a comprehensive plan that deals with all aspects of it because you can’t separate one from the other.’ ”
As it turns out, that’s fine with Purcell. “What we set out to do is to look at the whole waste management issue,” says mayoral spokesman Patrick Willard, “and in doing that we’ve had to look at everything from Thermal to recycling.”
In setting out to revamp the entire waste management system, administration officials say hiring Anderson has proven to be one of the administration’s savvier moves. Anderson came to Nashville almost a year ago via Charlottesville, Va., and is the first waste management administrator in the city’s history who’s the product of a national search.
In Charlottesville, Anderson spent eight years in the waste management and recycling business. Before that, as a graduate student in political history, he cut his teeth by helping his wife Kelly run a moderately successful recycling pickup business of their own. “[Kelly] needed some menial labor,” Anderson says, “and there’s nothing more menial than a graduate student, so I was brought into the business.”
Since joining the Purcell administration, Anderson has had his work cut out for him resuscitating Nashville’s zombified recycling program. “He’s busy all the time,” Dunn says. “I’ll come in here in the morningand I get here pretty earlyand there’ll be an e-mail from him that he sent at 5:30 in the morning, and then I’ll send him one, and he’ll reply at 8:00 at night. So, I mean, he’s workin’ like a Turk.”
The long hours seem to be paying off. Often some of the more hard-to-please advocate groups in any city, Nashville’s recycling activists praise Anderson’s dedication and ability. “I think Chace Anderson’s doing a good job,” says Sherry Sloan, a longtime recycling advocate. “I think he’s been accessible to the public, he’s been available to answer questions and to go to community meetings, and he still is. He’s said over and over that for any group that wants him to speak to them, he’s available.”
In fact, educating the public is one of the administration’s major goals this time around, among other reasons because it was such a dismal failure in past recycling efforts.
“If you look at the very best programs around the country,” Anderson says, “they put money into public relations and education. Madison Avenue is well-known in this country because it works.”
“People need to be aware of it and reminded of it,” Dunn says. “You just can’t run an ad in the paper one time that says, ‘Hey, starting on Monday we’ll have recycling,’ and expect 95 percent of the citizens to participate. The education process has to be continuous. Trash is not something that most people get excited about.”
Willard agrees: “The problem was that in the past there wasn’t an effort made to keep people aware of the service. When there was a change, there was only one notice. So people would put out their baskets, and all of a sudden they’d be returned with all the bottles still in them.”
But, finally, Nashville is in for a changestarting with paper.
“We want to start out with success,” Anderson says. “And we need to let people know simply what it is they can recycle, and we’re starting with paper, which is the largest percentage of recyclable material there is. If it looks like paper, if it tears like paper, if you can write on it like paper, you can recycle it.”
The administration’s plan, which is contingent on Metro Council funding, is to begin a curbside recycling program for mixed paperand mixed paper onlyby the new year. Paper, as it happens, accounts for 40 percent of the waste stream, as opposed to, for instance, 5 percent for glass. And, as Anderson points out, glass is diminishing in market share: “It’s a product that’s hard to get rid of in the recycling world, and definitely hard to get rid of in a way that can generate revenue. Think about it: You’re competing against sand.”
It’s not often that falling behind gets you ahead, but with Nashville and recycling, it may well prove to be true. While cities like Baltimore are hemorrhaging money on decades-old recycling programs centered on out-of-dateand unprofitablematerials such as mixed plastic and glass, Anderson and the Purcell administration are determined to build momentum with an easier-to-recycle product.
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