Johnson City adjusts recycling program in response to market fluctuations

Zach Vance • Mar 23, 2019 at 11:58 PM

In recent months, two Northeast Tennessee recycling vendors have closed, triggering a domino effect that forced six local governments to suspend their recycling programs.

But not in Johnson City.

Known as being one of Tennessee’s first municipalities to start a curbside recycling program in 1989, Johnson City leaders have no plans to drastically alter their recycling program, but they are adapting the program in response to fluctuations in the market of plastic waste.

The first domino fell when China banned the import of plastic waste at the end of 2017. That forced the United States, as well as other counties that heavily relied on China as a dumping ground for plastics, to reevaluate its policies and procedures for recyclables.

Locally, Reclaimed Resources in Bristol shut its doors in December 2018, followed by Tri-City Waste Paper in February. The closure of those two companies prompted the discontinuation of recycling programs in Washington County, Virginia; Scott County; Abingdon; Bristol, Virginia; Sullivan County; and Unicoi County.

For one, the closest vendors that now accept both paper and plastics are located in Roanoke, Virginia; Asheville, North Carolina; and Knoxville. Almost all local governments, including Johnson City, subsidize their recycling programs, so the increased cost of transporting recycled waste is not fiscally viable for smaller governments.

“Tri-City Waste Paper went out of business, and that’s what caused us to jump around,” Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola told commissioners last week.

Earlier this month, Johnson City hauled its first load of plastics and cardboard to West Rock of Knoxville, the same recyclables vendor Kingsport uses. Pindzola said the company wanted the load to be “a little bit cleaner,” but they still paid for it.

Another cause for the discontinuation of local recycling programs is most operate a “single-stream recycling” program, meaning they just collect the recyclables and rely on vendors, or materials recovery facilities like Tri-City Waste Paper, to sort out the good from the bad.

Contamination is another cause, as many vendors implement stricter policies for what is acceptable and what is not. In many instances, one contaminated item could ruin an entire load of recyclables, sending it all to the landfill. Most recently, vendors cracked down on glass due to its risk of contamination.

Johnson City’s curbside recycling program is unique because it employs “pickers” who sort through every single recycling bin at the curb, selecting the good from the bad. Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the recycling industry was really pushing a few years ago for governments to implement single-stream programs.

“We looked at it, but we recognized we would actually lose more revenue doing that than the savings we would incur by going to a one-man crew. So we don’t do it, but most cities did,” Pindzola said.

For the fiscal year 2019, Johnson City has budgeted $941,792 solely for its recycling program, a 1 percent increase from the $932,377 budgeted the prior year. In 2018, the city collected almost 6,000 tons of recyclables, consisting 3,171 tons of cardboard and 1,322 tons of paper.

City Manager Pete Peterson said the subsidy for the recycling program covers labor, equipment, maintenance and transportation costs.

“In some cases, we have to pay people to take our recycling, and in other cases, we get paid for the product. So it certainly does not produce enough revenue to cover the cost of the operation,” Peterson said.

Since the program started, Peterson recalled one year in the mid-1980s when the city turned a $20,000-to-$30,000 profit because it stockpiled a bunch of cardboard when prices dipped and unloaded it all when prices jumped.

Johnson City also operates five drop-off sites for recyclables, but city leaders might shut them all down.

“The drop-off centers, because Sullivan County and others have cut out plastic recycling, people are taking that stuff to us and it’s absolutely filthy. That’s tough,” Pindzola told commissioners.

Peterson said the decision to end the drop-off sites is not final, but most recyclables at drop-off sites are contaminated and end up in landfills anyways.

“Unfortunately, what we experience at the drop-off sites is people put a lot of contamination in with the good plastic, and we end up having to pick it up and throw it all out,” Peterson said. “So it’s easier and more cost-effective probably for us to just terminate a drop-off site plastics, and just pick up the plastics at home. That decision is not final yet, but that’s the evaluation.”

On Friday, the city issued new, stricter recycling guidelines for both curbside and drop-off sites to align with the requirements of its new recycling vendor.

The new list of accepted plastic items is limited to milk jugs, water bottles, juice containers, soda bottles, laundry detergent containers, fabric softener containers, bleach bottles and windshield solvent bottles marked with a plastic code of “1” or “2.”

All other containers, even those marked with “1” or “2” will not be accepted.

Below is Johnson City’s revised recycling guide:


RECYCLE: Phone books, newspapers, magazines and inserts, catalogs, hard‐back books, paper‐back books, discarded mail, cereal boxes, soft drink cartons, cardboard, paper and gray board.

Remove inner materials and flatten. Flatten corrugated cardboard and reduce to 24”x 24” pieces.

NON‐RECYCLABLE: Shredded paper.


RECYCLE: Beverage cans.

Empty contents.

NON‐RECYCLABLE: Tin cans, paper and plastic cans, paint cans, buckets and foil.


RECYCLE: Clear, green and brown glass.

Empty contents, rinse, remove lid.

NON‐RECYCLABLE: Light bulbs, plate glass, mirrors, and drinking glasses.


RECYCLE: Plastic containers with the #1 or #2 insignia on the bottom of the following containers: milk bottles, laundry, bleach, and fabric softener containers, drink bottles such as water, juice, soda bottles, etc.

Rinse, Remove lid, crush.



RECYCLE: Automobile batteries. Rechargeable and non‐rechargeable household batteries.

Tape ends of the household batteries & place in a sealed plastic bag.


RECYCLE: Used motor oil and cooking oil.

Capture oil in a clear gallon container with a screw on lid. Do not mix motor & cooking oils. Strain cooking oil to remove animal products. Place alongside recycle bin.

NON‐RECYCLABLES: Kerosene, gasoline, brake or transmission fluids, paint thinners or other liquids.


RECYCLE: Household appliances: refrigerators, water heaters, dishwashers, stoves, washers and dryers.

Call 423‐975‐2792 to schedule collection. Place items at the curb.

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