From a lawsuit over the rejected expansion of a landfill in Nashville to the protracted political battle over closing the landfill in Murfreesboro, the urgency of Middle Tennessee’s trash crisis has increased in intensity in recent months.
The situation has all the ingredients for a political logjam. Neighborhoods across the region have made blocking new landfills and landfill expansions their hill to die on – the ultimate “not in my backyard” battlefield. The lack of a regional strategy to waste disposal and recycling has created a hodge-podge of local approaches.
As a whole, the region lags behind other major metropolitan areas that have adopted more progressive approaches that favor more recycling, more composting and less of a reliance on loading up garbage trucks with mountains of trash and driving them to a massive dump in someone else’s community.
Through expensive litigation, contentious community meetings and the pervasive question of environmental justice, the region is learning that solid waste policies and their consequences are interconnected. How quickly Nashville pursues a more progressive recycling and composting plan affects the Middle Point Landfill in Murfreesboro, where Nashville and Rutherford County send the majority of its trash. A more aggressive approach to recycling construction materials affects the Southern Services landfill in north Nashville, the only such facility within a 40 mile radius.
Most urgently, addressing solid waste policy with a unified approach would put all of Middle Tennessee on a more sustainable waste disposal future.
In the meantime, landfills in the Nashville area are nearing their limits.
“The issue is critical because the Class I landfills in our region (those that accept household garbage) are filling up fast and will have limited capacity for onsite expansion,” said Michael Skipper, executive director of the Greater Nashville Regional Council, which is taking the lead on pushing for a regional solution.
In Rutherford County, relationships sour over landfill expansion
In Rutherford County, a long-simmering dispute over the Middle Point landfill erupted in April after its operators, Republic Services, quietly filed an application with the state to expand the 207-acre dump by nearly 100 additional acres.
The Middle Point landfill accepts waste from 34 Middle Tennessee counties, including nearly all household waste generated in Davidson and Rutherford Counties. At current rates of disposal, the landfill has about 10 years of life left.
“I’m tired of being a dump for the whole central part of this state,” said Robert Peay, Jr., a county commissioner representing the fast growing Murfreesboro suburbs where Middle Point is located, where residents have complained of foul odors, truck traffic and potential impacts on local streams.
“I understand there is a need and we’re going to have to have a landfill somewhere” he said. “I understand that. I think everyone here does. Even if we don’t like it.”
Peay’s remarks came during a May 12 meeting of the Rutherford County Public Works & Planning Committee just weeks after the company had reversed course, withdrawing their application after getting community blowback from residents and a stern rebuke from Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland and all five members of Rutherford County’s legislative delegation.
“Let’s start by clearly stating a truth that everyone in this room wishes wasn’t the case,” said Dan Jameson, vice president for Republic Services, responded. “It’s just the reality. Any decision that the county makes and the committee makes regarding managing their solid waste, whether its maximum diversion, incineration…landfills are always going to be part of the puzzle. Viewed this way, landfills are a community asset.”
The timing of Republic Services’ now-withdrawn request for an expansion stung. For months, Rutherford County officials had been vetting proposals from waste companies, including Republic Services, for long-term solutions to the county’s rapidly growing trash problems. The company’s request to the state was seen as bypassing the local decision-making process.
Jeremy Aber, a geography professor whose home sits about a mile south of Middle Point said the experience had soured relations between landfill owners and community members.
The group had been pushing the city and county toward more recycling and composting to reduce reliance on landfills, citing examples like San Francisco which reduced landfill deposits by 80%.
“I thought we had some understanding of how this company relates to the community, but I guess I was wrong,” said Aber, who is chair of the Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, a group fighting the landfill expansion plan.
Aber said he and other activists know the long term solutions won’t happen overnight, which drives frustration that even initial steps toward less reliance on landfills have yet to begin
“There’s no easy or cheap solution,” Aber said. “The easy and cheap solution was the landfill.”
In Nashville, looming litigation and a history of environmental racism
At the nexis of Middle Tennessee’s lack of a regional approach and Nashville’s lack of political will to commit to more progressive strategies is the northern Davidson County Metro Council district represented by Councilman Jonathan Hall.
In Rutherford County, rapidly growing middle class suburbs have sprung up around the Middle Point landfill, which opened in 1988.
But in Nashville, Hall’s minority-majority district has for decades been home to bruising battles over landfills, most recently Waste Management’s proposal to expand Southern Services, its construction debris landfill. Without an expansion, the landfill has just two or three years of life left.
Nashville’s solid waste board, under tremendous political pressure from Hall and other politicians, rejected the expansion. Waste Management responded with a lawsuit on April 22 seeking to overturn that decision.
Nashville is nearing the point of a trash crisis, where the landfills it relies on are near-capacity while the city remains the only one of its size with just once a month curbside recycling —a service, moreover, that is only provided to residents in its urban services district.
As for how the city reached this point, Hall described an environmental justice crisis that punishes his portion of the county spanning from Bordeaux to Bells Bend.
“I think the single biggest reason why it’s a major problem that’s gone unaddressed is the NIMBY approach in the city to most things,” Hall said. “You’ve had the burden of this put on minority communities and lower income communities for generations.
“Anything the city didn’t want they dumped somewhere that economically disadvantaged people live. When you have parts of the city that have benefited more than others, it’s hard to get them to approach in a serious way and say, ‘OK, how do we fix this in a fair, holistic way?’ Why should another part of town care if the landfill doesn’t affect them?”
Despite the track record of environmental injustice, Hall said he is hopeful. He believes the city council and neighborhood activists have the political will to implement more progressive policies, and what’s more, Hall says the framework is already in place to do so.
In studying the proposed expansion of the Waste Management landfill, Hall became intimately familiar with the city’s Solid Waste Master Plan, a ten year blueprint for managing garbage which was updated in 2019 late in the term of Mayor David Briley. Hall said he learned that the city wasn’t implementing the policies recommended in that plan. So he’s recently filed a resolution seeking to form a commission with the goal of ensuring that Metro follows its own plan.
“We have to come up with better ways to clean, take care of and sustain our community,” Hall said. “The city has to look at diversion options and, moving forward as we continue to grow, how to best be prepared for that component in growth.”
The key to implementing more progressive strategies starts with increasing recycling and large-scale composting. Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s recently proposed budget includes the funding to increase recycling from once a month to every other week. That may just be the start.
Metro Councilman Colby Sledge recently led the passage of legislation requiring developers to file a report with Metro Codes detailing what materials they will use on construction sites and how they plan to handle disposal.
The city also recently approved a plan shifting many of the trash disposal responsibilities from the Public Works department to Metro Water, which many stakeholders view as the precursor to a more progressive “pay as you throw” approach. Under that policy, residents and businesses would be charged fees based on their volumes of trash, but recycling and food waste diversion through composting would be free.
“A cornerstone of the zero waste master plan is ‘save-as-you-throw’,” said Mary Beth Ikard, who advises Cooper on sustainability issues. “Your regular household would be incentivized to reduce waste if there’s more of a direct tie between waste-generating behavior and cost. Think of your water or electricity bills: If you use more you pay more, so utility customers have a built-in incentive to conserve.
“Under save as you throw, you’ll pay less if you’re throwing away less, so those who compost and recycle are rewarded for taking responsibility for their consumption in a way that helps the city, helps the planet. But you need to have the proper disposal services in place, lowering the hassle so it’s convenient for people to do the right thing with their waste.”; save as you throw, or pay as you throw, can also help facilitate that access to more and better services.”
Nashville has increased, rather than decreased its reliance on landfills, even accounting for the city’s explosive population growth over the past decade. In 2020, the city was sending 901,000 metric tons to landfills — or 1.29 per person. In 2011, city residents were generating 569,000 tons, or about .9 per person, according to state data.
Adding to the city’s long term challenges is that local officials have control over only 11% of the landfill waste and four percent of recycling waste generated by businesses and residents. Waste and recycling from outside the urban services district designation is managed privately as is all commercial waste from construction sites, restaurants, hospitals, factories and offices.
There is no composting pick up. An analysis of Nashville’s trash habits estimates that 30% of the city’s waste could be diverted to composting facilities, drastically reducing its reliance on landfills.
The limited amount of recycling that Metro is currently doing, and that it has the authority over doing, makes it difficult to find a buyer for the recycled materials, said John Sherman, chair of Nashville’s Solid Waste Region Board.
“Signals need to be sent that you’re going to have to reduce and recycle,” he said. “That also sends a signal to the (recycling) marketplace.”
“In the urban services district, you pay the same if you have 8 bags of trash or one,” he said. “There’s no incentive to recycle. We feel strongly that the only way to get a handle on waste is a utility or enterprise fund that treats garbage like any other utility.”
Sherman said that adding another utility bill, particularly to low income residents, raises equity issues that will need to be worked out, but he sees no other alternative.
‘We need to think regionally’
The debate over landfills spans decades in Tennessee. In 1992, the state legislatures created regional solid waste boards to guide waste policies, concerned there would not be enough landfill capacity in the future.
The legislation gave solid waste boards a specific duty: to develop and annually update 10-year plans on how to divert 25% of waste from municipal landfills. The only authority boards have is to approve or deny proposals for municipal landfills that do not meet the goals of the 10 year plan.
But a key missing ingredient, waste experts say, is a coordinated regional approach that would allow Middle Tennessee counties to come up with strategies together — and to band together to enter contracts with recycling companies whose notoriously slim profit margins make the volume created from multiple counties attractive.
“If we had enough glas, plastic, paper, that would send the right signal to the market,” Sherman said. “We need to think regionally,” he said.
Until this fiscal year, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation had been providing between $400,000 and $600,000 in annual funding to the nine regional councils across the state from a state solid waste management fund to assist with long term planning.
The funds were used by the Greater Nashville Regional Council to hire a professional to assist counties with long term planning using a multi-county approach to trash, recycling and composting.
This fiscal year, Tennessee ended that funding, in part because of a pandemic-related freeze of discretionary spending across all agencies due to the pandemic.
But another reason TDEC pulled its funding was a result of a worst-case landfill scenario that brought into sharp focus the need for less reliance on massive dumps. The state has had to divert its existing funds toward cleaning up a landfill in Camden, Tenn, abandoned after its owners declared bankruptcy, a spokeswoman said.
“It was very disappointing,” said Mac Nolen, director of Solid Waste for Rutherford County, of losing TDEC funding. “They (state officials) had the opportunity to learn how we have had to react.”
A regional approach could bring new challenges, Nolen acknowledged.
“Right now there are 95 different ways of handing trash in Tennessee,” Nolen said. In a regional approach, “collectively we’d all have to agree on finding a market.”
Skipper, the top executive at the GNRC, said that, if you think about it, solid waste is already a regional issue in Middle Tennessee. He pointed out that there are only four active Class I landfills (for household waste) in the 20-county region. With Middle Point filling up, there is greater urgency for local governments to collaborate, he said.
“Ideally, Middle Tennessee would increase its efforts to divert household garbage away from landfills and into recycling and reuse programs (think waste to energy),” Skipper said. “Some of the more transformative solutions are expensive within the context of a single local government budget. There are tremendous economies of scale that can be achieved through leveraging the entire metro area market. There also is a possibility to transfer certain risks and financing responsibilities to a jointly owned authority.”
Skipper said mayors in the region “have expressed an interest in reconvening (with the GNRC) to further explore the benefits and costs of forming a multi-county solid waste authority.”
“A multi-county authority could benefit the region by providing significant opportunities for cost sharing on facilities, equipment, and services that any given municipality would have difficulty affording on their own,” Skipper said. “The approach also would allow for more streamlined negotiation with the private sector and allow for more uniform consumer education about proper waste disposal and diversion opportunities.”