Chattanooga’s Takeout Taken In

City Expands Curbside Collection to Include Takeout Packaging

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Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2017 10:00 am | Updated: 5:42 pm, Wed Dec 6, 2017.

With busy households ordering takeout more than ever, municipalities are seeing a rapid escalation in the volume of foodservice packaging in their waste streams.

Now, with new technology and education, many communities are finding ways to route cups, pizza boxes and paper bags away from the landfill and into the recycling system.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., the city has partnered with its local recycling facility to begin collecting these items in its curbside recycling program. Residents are now able to recycle more kinds of waste than ever before, with new acceptable items that include takeout packaging such as paper and plastic cups and containers, pizza and sandwich boxes, and paper bags.

The Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) is the trade association for the North American foodservice packaging industry and has spent five years on extensive research to truly understand the tangible and alleged barriers to getting more foodservice packaging recycled.

Discussions about best practices and how to overcome obstacles were needed in order to make a change. End markets, material recovery facility (MRF) requirements, and a community's recycling culture are all variables in getting residential curbside recycling programs to accept foodservice packaging.

When asked why Chattanooga was chosen for this initiative, Lynn Dyer, president of FPI, said, “The appropriate MRF and end markets were present. In our efforts to get more paper and plastic foodservice packaging recycled (or composted), we’ve been doing outreach to numerous cities. Chattanooga and their MRF, WestRock, both saw the value of adding these new materials to their residential curbside recycling program, which made for a terrific community partnership.”

FPI helped the city of Chattanooga launch an outreach campaign to update residents on the new materials that could now be accepted and how to properly prepare them for the recycling process. The city and FPI co-hosted a recycling expansion kickoff event and ribbon cutting in September to promote the initiative.

Councilman Ken Smith spoke at the event, which was attended by personnel from WestRock, Orange Grove Center, the city of Chattanooga, and many other organizations that deal with solid waste and recycling. Jeanette Eigelsbach, director of Scenic Cities Beautiful, gave a short demonstration of how to prep the new recyclables before they are thrown in the bins. Later that month, FPI had a booth set up at Chattanooga’s 13th Annual GOFest, a celebration at the Chattanooga Zoo that is part of an initiative to help make Chattanooga more accessible to everyone, regardless of their ability. Organizers said this was another great way to get citizens on board with the new program and to teach them what can and cannot be recycled.

"The city of Chattanooga is excited about our partnership with the Foodservice Packaging Institute," said Kimberly Smith, recycling coordinator for the city of Chattanooga. "We're proud to be able to provide our citizens with another item they can recycle at curbside." She said the public reaction has been positive and the city is continuing to look for items it can add to the curbside recycling list."

The rule for recycling foodservice packaging is fairly simple: all pulp fiber drink carriers, plastic takeout containers, and paper plates need to be clean and free of food particles before they can be tossed in the curbside receptacles. Since these materials get mixed in with other recycled materials in the single-stream process, it is important for them to be clean and empty. Food waste needs to be washed out of all packaging to reduce the chance of contaminating the other recyclables. This allows the MRFs to still bale all of their like materials together, creating a feasible operation and allowing for foodservice packaging to be used in the recovery process.

MRFs are tasked with adding foodservice packaging to existing material bale types because there is simply not enough to create bales explicitly for those items. The poly and clay coated carton board used for cold and hot beverage cups are some of the more challenging materials when recycling foodservice packaging. Some mills have the capability of processing bales with the extra foodservice packaging mixed in. Chattanooga’s MRF has the proper end markets and mill available to facilitate these additives, making it the perfect city to pilot this type of program.

With proper education and technology, every city can follow in Chattanooga’s footsteps to try to reclaim a higher percentage of limited resources. Public/private partnerships help make that possible. Experts say recovered fiber from foodservice packaging represents a huge untapped potential in the industry. Approximately 3 million tons of foodservice packaging is produced each year in the U.S. and, with the right preparation, it can be diverted from landfills.

Caleb Powell is an Environmental Specialist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Office of Sustainable Practices.

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