Several people have asked about recycling in Kingsport, so I decided to investigate, and I had a good discussion with Ryan McReynolds, Kingsport’s assistant city manager. Basically, there is some hope for a renewed recycling program in the city, but before I get there, I wanted to lay out what happened over the last several years so you can understand the context.
Prior to 2018, China was accepting a lot of recyclables from the USA. While virtually none of Kingsport’s waste made it to China, as the West Coast primarily filled that demand, there was a demand for the recycling streams we generated.
Overall, it cost the city about $1 million per year to run the recycling program, but we received nearly that much for the recycling product. And if you included the avoided landfill costs, the program basically funded itself.
When China stopped accepting our recycling waste — part of the fallout of the trade war we entered with China — prices in the USA for recycling material dropped dramatically, as now supply far exceeds the demand.
So suddenly, rather than being a break-even proposition, the program became a net cost to the city of about $450,000 a year.
Then a year later, Westrock’s Materials Recovery Facility in Knoxville — the nearest recycler — started charging $35 per ton to accept waste from Kingsport. So suddenly the $19 per ton for landfill disposal did not look that bad, especially when you added in the trucking cost to Knoxville, versus the landfill.
After the surcharge, the recycling program became a net cost of $625,000, with much of it going to a landfill anyway because there are so few places taking recycling material. So I can understand why the city suspended the program.
But as I mentioned, there is hope for the future — a hope being driven by two of our largest employers. For plastics, Eastman is building a new plastic recycling operation, and they will need plastic scrap to run the new recycling operation.
And the rebuilt Domtar cardboard plant should be accepting scrap cardboard. The hope is both plants will increase the demand for plastic and paper waste, so rather than being a net loss, recycling can become at least close to break-even for the city. Both plants should be operation in 2023.
In the meantime, there are three things one can do. First when possible, buy things made of recycled materials. By increasing demand, the supply will follow.
Then you still can recycle by taking plastic, cardboard and paper to a recycling station. Sullivan County currently operates four recycling stations — one on Industry Drive, one at the landfill, one in Colonial Heights and one in Sullivan Gardens. Hopefully in the next six months at least two more collection points will open up — one near the Civic Center and one in Lynn Garden with the possibility of a few more.
The last option is to sign up with a company like Recyclops, a company that is offering curbside pickup of plastics, paper, cardboard and metals for $12 per month or $19 if they pick up glass as well.
We just signed up, so I can’t yet comment on well how it works. But we are giving them a try until hopefully the city starts back up.
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