In the Spotlight: Tennessee Recycling Coalition: Setting the Standard

Since 1990, the Tennessee Recycling Coalition (TRC) has been a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to promoting recycling and sustainable materials management practices in the State of Tennessee. TRC began from members of a subcommittee of the Tennessee Environmental Council who were of similar interests and passion about recycling. Shortly after organizing and planning three annual recycling conferences, TRC was incorporated as the conference helped solidify the group’s mission and purpose. As a coalition of many industries, companies and individuals networking together to raise recycling as the standard in Tennessee, TRC works in partnership with the local, state and federal governments to provide resources, education and outreach for the recycling message.

The TRC serves the entire state of Tennessee (95 counties); however, as with any organization, their areas and ways of support vary greatly across the state. A 12-member board represents business, industry, state and local government. Figure 1, page 23, shows the TRC’s demographics, which remain relatively unchanged today.

All recycled materials have value and contribute to the economic well-being of all Tennesseans and the TRC recognizes that recycling promotes and sustains jobs, adds to the revenue of local governments by growing the tax base and through the sale of collected commodities. Recycling further enhances the personal wealth of all Tennesseans through cost avoidance of landfill tipping fee charges. Ultimately, it also protects the environment by keeping the materials out of the landfill.

Changing the Mindset

With commodity pricing in steel, cardboard and plastics as well as China’s National Sword ruling, the recycling industry has been greatly affected the last few months. “As a non-profit recycling organization, TRC’s mission has been to educate our audience in how they handle their commodities,” says Board Member and owner of Ground Up Recycling, Lincoln Young.  “The key to survival in this market is the generator of the recycled commodity must see themselves as a supplier. They are creating a product for purchase from a buyer. They have to turn the switch in their mind from an entity that is packaging trash to a supplier that is making product. This mindset means that the supplier must be diligent in training their staff to make good clean, sorted bales of materials. It must mean that bales must be of the highest integrity, and loads must be as full as possible. Sorted loads will always pay better than non-sorted products.” He points out that the downside to this switch in mentality is that cost and training will rise; however, providing clean products will always gain the attention of buyers.

TRC regularly receives inquiries regarding unusual potential recyclables, community recycling resources and education programs. One common referral that is now available from one of TRC’s many partners is the Tennessee Materials Marketplace that functions similarly to a sophisticated Craig’s List to connect material producers to end users with the primary goals of diverting waste from landfills, generating significant cost savings, energy savings and creating new jobs and business opportunities.

Concerning recycling market challenges, TRC is a member of the Southeast Development Recycling Council (SERDC), who recently wrote a rebuttal to a recent Wall Street Journal Article about recycling being under siege. An excerpt from SERDC’s rebuttal written by Director Will Sagar:

“The impacts of China’s actions are painful. The recycling industry has seen huge swings in market prices for several years. Yes, old corrugate containers are currently bringing half of what they did a year ago. But a year ago they fetched record prices and the index at the beginning of this month was within 10 percent of the 15-year average.

In the Southeast alone there are 360 manufacturing facilities operating currently that rely on recycled material for feedstock in the production of consumer goods. These plants employ 98,000 people in manufacturing jobs and generate $40 billion in sales (serdc.org). They are running every day, regardless of the actions taken by the government of China. Nationally, recycling is creating 534,000 jobs (isri.org).

We have recovered from crashes before and can expect to recover again. Yes, the contamination is a problem. It’s a burden on domestic demand as well as it is for our export markets. The industry must and will respond to clean up the bales. Outreach and community education by the municipalities must get better. Individuals can help by placing the right materials in the recycling cart. When in question, contact the local public works office.”

“Recycling has always had challenges,” says Mark Braswell, TRC President. “Recycling advocates may have been a victim of their own marketing during the most recent boom. The message of recycling was easier to sell when there was more money to be made and we relied too heavily on this one benefit and the total benefit package was less de-emphasized along with the financial contribution of those benefits as a whole.” He stresses that TRC will continue to advocate sustainable materials management and look for ways to show the comprehensive benefits of recycling including job creation.

Education and Outreach

TRC provides a level of training to view different options to recycling besides the big three (metal, OCC, plastic). TRC focuses on educating their audience in recycling partnerships such as compost, waste-to-energy and waste reduction. This past year, TRC partnered with Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) to provide a series of workshops across the state with exceptional speakers and timely topics, including:

  1. Chattanooga—Best Practices for Adding New Materials
  2. Nashville—Glass Recycling solutions and the Role of Fiberglass as a Consumer and Industrial End Market
  3. Memphis—Partnerships and Regional Approaches for Improving Recycling
  4. Nashville—Food Waste & Organics Recovery

TRC typically holds four to six workshops throughout the year at varying locations as a member benefit. These workshops are also open to recycling businesses, municipalities, schools and interested citizens. Members often get access to recycling facilities and learning opportunities with regional, state and national speakers. Locations have included:

  • Sevier County Solid Waste Digester Plant in Pigeon Forge
  • Zero Waste Summer Night at Little Harpeth Brewing in Nashville
  • Lebanon PHG Energy Waste-to-Energy Facility and Ground Up Recycling Center

In partnership with the Tennessee Environmental Council, the Southeast Recycling Development Council and the sponsorship support from Ground Up Recycling, TRC helped to promote another Recycling Day at the Tennessee legislature in downtown Nashville on March 9. Tennessee Recycling Day is an important opportunity to speak one-on-one with elected decision makers and inform them that recycling is driving job growth and contributing to Tennessee’s economy. “This event is relevant as we continue to educate our representatives and senators about the economic benefits of recycling. This year’s event included designated times to meet with senators and legislatives followed by a chance to network at Puckett’s Grocery,” explains Braswell.

TRC’s premier event is their annual conference, held this year at Franklin Tennessee’s Cool Springs Marriott and Convention Center from August 12 – 14. Featuring industry best practices, community enhancements and creative reuse, TRC’s 29th annual conference will have a theme of “Recycling and the Bottom Line”. Attendance usually is around 175 with 30 exhibitors. “Our annual conference is our primary fundraiser along with sponsorships and memberships. We have a relative small annual budget usually just over $40K per year,” says Braswell. “Having a successful conference for 29 of those years has been an ongoing achievement that has stood the test of time, always bringing recycling to the forefront statewide waste management discussions through our long-term memberships and partnerships.”

In addition, to communicating in a variety of ways with their members, including the Web site tennesseerecyclingcoaltion.org, which includes resources on the recycling awards, outstanding organizations/programs/individuals, board/officer information, membership, sponsors and upcoming events, TRC sends out e-newsletters and puts up social media  posts (Facebook and Twitter) as well as attends a variety of other events, from the Southeast Recycling Development Council’s conference/fall forum and Resource Recycling’s National Conference to state conferences like the Tennessee Environmental Conference and the Environmental Show of the South where TRC not only represents Tennessee, but they also gain knowledge and information to share with their membership.

Each year, TRC also solicits Recycler of the Year awards to identify and recognize organizations and individuals who demonstrate excellence in recycling and waste minimization. The Tennessee Recycling Coalition Annual Recyclers of the Year Awards will be presented in six categories at the 29th Annual TRC Conference at the Awards Reception on Monday, August 13, 2018 (see Tennessee Recycling Coalition 2017 Recycler of the Year Awards sidebar, page 23). TRC recognizes individuals, organizations, schools and businesses in the State of Tennessee that have demonstrated a commitment to waste prevention and recycling. This not only recognizes and brings awareness to successful organizations and programs, but also leverages recycling amongst competitors.

Finally, in 2017, TRC entered into the Tennessee Training Academy (TTA) Memorandum of Understanding with eight other organizations/agencies to enhance and coordinate training opportunities throughout the state. The purpose of this MOU is to improve the knowledge base of Tennessee solid waste professionals by providing coordinated opportunities to receive professional, high quality training in solid waste and materials management.

The Changing Industry 

TRC has existed for nearly 30 years going from times when “Recycling Wasn’t Cool” to present day where recycling is often considered the norm but, in reality, continues to be present challenges. “Even though waste or recycling is on the forefront of people’s minds, cost always seems to be the driving factor. TRC tries to stress the importance of recycling not only on a sustainable level, but also on a financial level as well,” explains Young. “Some of the challenges that we face are the swells and swains of the economy. When the economy is booming, many industries get so busy with production that waste business planning becomes reactionary—deal with what you get as fast as you can. When the economy slows, we see folks looking to recycling to try and gain a profit or cut a loss. TRC tries to be a resource regardless of the times to promote a sustainable business plan on waste and recycling not just for the now, but also for the future.”

Young sees the recycling industry as similar to the stock market in many ways. It is going to see highs and lows and it is going to be cyclical at times. “At this point the recycling industry is not going away. It is engrained in the culture of most industry and in the minds of most consumers. Regardless of the mindset, as landfills are filling up and new landfills are not getting permitted or expensive to permit and maintain compliance, recycling will continue to increase and, in some cases, may be a mandatory solution to waste. Waste will never go away, that is very evident to see; we believe recycling will continue to increase regardless of commodity pricing for years to come.”

Looking Ahead

TRC’s goals and vision are continually set by its board and reevaluated in time to allow flexibility and adjust to the perceived needs with the available resources. Continuing to seek partners in their ever-continuing mission of reduce, reuse and recycle that has now morphed into very similar meaning behind sustainable materials management, TRC’s board has always been a working board; however, they have had a goal of shifting to an ‘Executive Board’ combined with some type of employees. “An Executive Director or other positions could propel us into the next level of executing our mission,” says Braswell, “Right now, we are proud of our accomplishments and strongly support the manufacturing industries in Tennessee through our partnership messages that promote high quality feedstock that fuels their manufacturing.”

For more information, contact Mark Braswell, President, at (423) 854-5459 or e-mail Mark.Braswell@tn.gov.

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