Knoxville to pilot state’s first mobile hazardous waste collection program

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

The city of Knoxville is launching the state’s first-ever mobile hazardous household waste collection program.
To be unveiled later this year, the new program has a two-fold purpose: to make it easier for residents of Knoxville and Knox County to dispose of hazardous household waste (HHW) and promote the city’s HHW facility.
Originally built in 1997, Knoxville’s household hazardous waste facility is one of four permanent such facilities in the state. The 4,000-square-foot facility was expanded and redesigned in 2018 to allow for easier processing. The facility is free to use for safely depositing items like motor oil, pesticides, gasoline, rechargeable batteries, fluorescent lightbulbs and anti-freeze.
Patience Melnik, Knoxville solid waste manager, said the state approached Knoxville about piloting a mobile hazardous program.
“We received a grant from TDEC,” Melnik said. “ Part went from our operations, part went for the expansion of our household hazardous waste facility, and part went for the box truck we are going to use to pick up HHW materials at events,” The truck is pretty bare bones, but it will have containers inside to hold the separated materials and some safety features.”
Melnik said the city is looking into hosting collection events in parking lots of big box stores, on school campuses, neighborhood association meetings, and other events to see which works the best for the program. The mobile collection truck will allow the facility to reach out beyond the borders of Knoxville itself.
“We and the three other big cities have a HHW facility, but most counties in the state do not,” Melnik said. “Not only can we use the truck to go to the further reaches of the county to make it more convenient for people in Knox County, but we can also collect from outlying counties that don’t have facilities. We can’t take the truck outside of the county, but we do encourage residents from surrounding counties to come to our events and leave their materials with us. We all share the same waterways and share the same environment. Helping them keep their environment clean helps us keep our environment clean.”
Melnik said presently only 5 percent of city and county residents use the facility with 39 tons of materials disposed of at the facility last year. The new program is hoping to change that, hosting six to 10 drop-off events throughout the year.
“We want to make it easy and increase those numbers,” Melnik said. “It isn’t illegal to throw some of these materials away in the regular garbage, but it is better for the environment to dispose of them properly. Raising awareness at events about what items we take is another bonus. There are some items that some people never think about being toxic for our environment, like a flea collar. We are more used to cleansers, stains, batteries, and e-waste so we don’t think about what it does the environment.”
What sort of items are categorized as hazardous waste is also changing, so the program can help educate residents on what is and what no longer falls into that category.
“Batteries, just your regular alkaline batteries, used to have more toxins in them, but the technology has changed. They now can go in the landfill,” Melnik said. “We used to accept a lot of mercury thermometers, but over the years the amount of those we receive has dwindled because people aren’t using them anymore.”
One of the most striking features of the mobile collection truck is its mascot. Household Hazardous Waste Facility Site Manager Charlie Thomas is both the face and name behind the collection campaign with “Take it to Charlie” selected as the campaign’s motto.
“The exciting thing about the truck is the wrap on the outside, which we think of as a roving billboard not just for our events but also for our permanent facility, which we are trying to encourage people to use more frequently,” Melnik said. “We just had a running joke in our meetings about him being the mascot. A couple of us in the solid waste office got the idea to really do it and make a caricature of him similar to what you would see on the side of a plumbing truck. We wanted a cheerful face to humanize household hazardous waste and make it more inviting.”
The truck is also a way of honoring Thomas for his leadership and dedication to his job.
“Charlie does a fantastic job running the household hazardous waste facility,” Melnik said. “He has a great team and the facility gets accolades all the time from the public. We thought it would be fun to highlight him. He was absolutely shocked. We had it completely designed before revealing it to him. I think he finds it pretty funny.”
The wrap was designed in-house by city graphic designer Dan Frye.
“Any kind of project is strengthened if you have more partners involved,” Melnik said. “It’s been a lot of fun working with our communications team. I think the wrap is going to help us reach out to the public. It’s getting a lot of press and is a great story. In addition to that partnership within the city, we are partnering with Knox County as well. They are a funding partner for both our HHW facility and the box truck project. That makes hosting events in the county much easier as well.”