After releasing our latest Curious Nashville episode on what happens when you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin, we started getting questions from more curious listeners about how recycling works in Nashville.
Some were specific ("Can I recycle tin foil?"), others took longer to answer ("Why doesn't residential recycling pick up more often?"), but we've tried to address as many as possible with the help of two recycling experts: Leah Sherry, executive director of Turnip Green Creative Reuse, and Kelly Tipler with Metro Nashville Public Works.
Their answers not only respond to specific questions but also illuminate the recycling process as a whole. You can read the answers below or watch the conversation on Facebook Live.
What Messes Things Up?
Could you give us a specific list of things that are commonly put in the curbside bins that are not acceptable?
The biggest offenders: plastic bags and garden hoses (which get wrapped around the sorting equipment, requiring workers to cut them out several times a day), and diapers and soiled fibers (which contaminate the batch of materials).
What if the pizza box has absorbed a lot of grease from the pizza but is otherwise debris-free?
Tear off the lid and recycle just that if you have to. Greasy and soiled fibers will contaminate other recyclables. But certain drop-off sites will start taking compostable materials soon.
How clean does my peanut butter jar have to be?
Aim for zero peanut butter! (Pro tip: You can soak it overnight or put it on the top rack of your dishwasher to get it extra clean.) Will a little extra peanut butter ruin a whole batch of recyclables? Not necessarily. But if enough people do this, it will.
So, Can I Recycle … This?
Can we recycle plastic bags with the 1-7 numbers on them?
No. While plastics 1-7 can be recycled, the form of the plastic plays a huge role in whether it can be recycled at the facility in Nashville. The Material Recovery Facility does not have the capacity to recycle film. On the other end of the spectrum, it also doesn’t have the capacity to recycle numbers 1-7 of industrial grade plastics — think trash and recycling bins, or those plastic tubs that you use for storage or moving. Basically, it’s best to stick to household plastics, such as food and beverage containers.
Just to be absolutely sure, this means don't put your recyclables in trash bags at all?
Correct. The sorting line is designed to separate recyclables, but not to open bags. It is likely that recyclables you put in a trash bag will not make it through the sorting line.
Can I recycle egg cartons?
If cardboard, yes. If Styrofoam, it can be recycled at Publix or has to go to a vendor that recycles expanded foam.
Can I recycle tin foil and other aluminum?
Yes, as long as it doesn't have food on it. Aluminum such as cans is definitely a yes — in fact, aluminum is some of the most valuable material that a facility can recycle.
And can Metro recycle hangers?
Not in the residential single stream.
For mixed nuts, can I recycle the plastic lid and put the mixed can in the trash?
This gets to an interesting point: Anything made of more than one material cannot be recycled because the machines and workers don’t have the capacity to break down cans and separate the various materials. Mixed nut cans, for example often, are made of fiber and have a tin bottom, which couldn’t be recycled unless you cut the materials apart so they could be separated at the facility. (Which Leah and Kelly do!) But the plastic lid can be recycled.
What about black plastic containers that have the recycling symbol?
Black plastic containers are fine to recycle.
I remember when plastic butter tubs, etc., were not acceptable. Now?
Plastic butter tubs are recyclable, along almost every plastic food and beverage container. Remember to wash them out and leave plastic caps attached to bottles and milk jugs so they don’t get lost in the facility.
What are the limitations on recycling clamshell boxes?
Clamshell plastics can be recycled. Clamshell expanded foam cannot go in your recycling bin.
What about milk cartons? Most are now made from coated paper with a plastic pour spout.
Ideally, you should pull the plastic part off — a fiber mill doesn't want that. If you don't, there's still a chance of making it through the process into a fiber bale, but there’s always a possibility that the entire bale could get rejected.
How do we get notified when the criteria changes?
The public works website is a great resource for keeping up with updated rules on how to recycle right.
The Little Things
Is it true that you need to take the cap off of the plastic water bottle before recycling?
Just the opposite — you should always leave the cap on your plastic bottles. Caps themselves are typically too small to make it through the sorting line, so as long as they are attached to another plastic item, they’re good.
Once they go to the next facility, they get shredded and water is used to separate the various grades. The lid of your water bottle will float, the rest will sink. The lids will be skimmed off the top of the “bath” and the rest will be scooped up. If you were to separate them yourself and recycle your bottle cap on its own, it probably wouldn’t even make it through the line because it’s too small for the workers to grab.
Can you put things like plastic utensils, straws and lids from restaurant to-go cups in the bins?
Materials of this size tend to get lost in the facility. You will have better luck if you keep the cup, straw, and lid all together instead of separating them. Plastics get separated by real people, and it's hard for them to grab straws, compared to things like like soda bottles and plastic food containers. Tip: You can purchase affordable reusable steel straws that are lightweight and will fit in your purse.
What about the hard plastic caps that are on gallon jugs of milk?
Hard plastic caps on gallon jugs of milk can be recycled. Your lid is much more likely to make it through the sorting line if it is attached to the original container.
Glass And Cardboard
I've always been told glass can't be recycled in this region. Why isn't it included in single stream? Where can I take it?
There are 16 drop off sites that recycle glass. But glass is expensive for the city to recycle — it’s a heavy material, it takes a lot of energy to haul it, and it’s not worth a lot of money in the current market. There are also a lot of safety concerns about recycling glass in the single-stream process: It breaks easily, and shards contaminate the paper, cardboard and other mixed materials.
Even though it's important to recycle glass, it's also not as bad to throw away as other materials, because it doesn't contain toxic materials — it breaks down into sand in a landfill.
What happens if you put a green bottle in a clear glass bottle bin for recycling? Or a brown bottle in a green glass bin?
Davidson County doesn’t separate bottles by color.
The city prohibits throwing away cardboard in the trash. Is that enforced?
Because it’s more of a code and a policy than a law, the city doesn't have a mechanism to enforce it right now.
If I see cardboard in a trash can, am I allowed to move it to the recycling bin?
Can you provide a directory of where items that cannot be recycled through Metro can be taken?
There is an extensive list on the Metro Public Works website of where you can take materials that you can’t recycle in your bins. There are four convenience drop off sites in Nashville that accept your electronics, yard waste, paint, and more. You can also contact Public Works or Turnip Green Creative Reuse to inquire about items that aren't listed on there. A website called Earth911 also has a directory.
For some larger items like mattresses and couches, the sheriff's office can sometimes send Nashville inmates to remove them. To see if your item is eligible, you can fill out this form on the sheriff's office website or call 615-880-3897.
What do we do with batteries?
They can be dropped off at convenience centers. They are then sent to a third party site where they are recycled. Rechargeable batteries can often go back to the big box stores where they were purchased — places like Lowe’s or Home Depot.
Where can we dispose of worn out t-shirts or fabrics?
Turnip Green Creative Reuse takes worn out t-shirts and uses them for educational outreach programs in underserved schools. They educate students how to create scarves, t-shirts, twine, and other projects using the old tees. You can check with other thrift stores to see their policies on tattered clothing. Goodwill, for example, will transport fabric and clothing overseas to third-world countries.
I drop off any clean plastic wrapping, like the wrapping around a big bunch of paper towels, in plastic bag drop-off bins. Is that okay?
This could vary, but Kroger, Trader Joe’s and several other stores accept clean, plastic film in their plastic bag drop-offs.
Are landlords required to give tenants written instructions about recycling?
Landlords are not required to do this. But the city is starting a neighborhood recycling ambassador program, designating someone in the neighborhood as a go-to person about where to go for the bins, what you can recycle, etc.
How are we encouraging private businesses and big companies to offer recycling services since they responsible for most of the waste?
Metro Public Works encourages and offers consultations for small businesses. If they get a trash container from the city, they can receive multiple recycle bins as well. If they have a dumpster, it is the responsibility of the business to get recycling.
I live in a rural area. What can I do to get recycling started?
Reach out to your local public works department!
The Big Questions
Why doesn't residential recycling get picked up more often?
It’s been requested in the budget for several years but hasn’t been funded yet. It is pulled from Metro's general fund, which also provides support for many other departments. So far, recycling has not been a priority compared to some of the other requests.
Should we be reaching out to someone in local government to encourage more funding or improvements in the recycling program?
Metro Public Works is developing a new 30-year solid waste plan and wants the community’s input on what needs to be done differently with recycling, which could influence policymakers in the city. Give your input on this form. And to keep up with other developments in the solid waste plan, visit this website. And, as with any issue you care about, you can also contact your Metro council members to share your ideas.
And if your recycling is overflowing, you can get up to four recycling bins free of charge. (It costs extra to pick up an extra trash bin.)
How can we get more pickup services, particularly for apartment complexes?
Apartment complexes are responsible for their own recycling at this time, so residents should advocate for the service in two ways: First, they need to talk to their landlord. Second, they should fill out the Public Works strategic plan community input form to express their your desire for policies and laws enforcing landlords to provide convenient recycling for tenants. The task force working on the new solid waste plan wants this to happen but needs support from residents of Nashville documented to move forward with the process.
Can we partner with a sister city in Japan to learn how we will be recycling 100% in a few years, like they have been doing for decades?
The city already brought in a team of outside consultants who have made a tremendous amount of impact in the United States. Nashville's goal with this 30 year plan to get to "zero waste" — reducing about 90 percent of the waste stream.
But to truly reduce waste, the first two Rs are the most important: "reusing" and "reducing." That means starting by thinking about your waste when you buy something. If we do those really well, we’ll even be doing much less recycling.