Landfill closure prompts look at future of municipal solid waste

TML Communications Specialist

Within the next decade, the largest landfill in the state of Tennessee will close and leave several municipalities with the same question: what to do with their solid waste.
The Middle Point Landfill in Rutherford County has been the main disposal site for Metro Nashville in addition to the governments of Rutherford County’s four municipalities – Eagleville, La Vergne, Murfreesboro, and Smyrna. Contracts for the landfill extend for at least seven years, but the last day the landfill can take refuse might come sooner than that.
The nearby disposal site for construction and demolition debris recently filled ahead of schedule and now that debris is also being taken to Middle Point.
As a result, the landfill could close earlier than anticipated and leave the municipalities who use it without a site to dispose of their solid waste – leading them to turn to other landfills already in use by other cities and counties.
Rebecca Caldwell, a solid waste planning manager with the Greater Nashville Regional Council (GRNC), said this local issue is part of a larger conversation about solid waste and recycling taking place across Tennessee and the nation.
“I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and people are talking about solid waste more now than they probably have collectively in the past 20 years,” she said. “At present, Middle Point has an intake of 4,000 tons of waste a day. The problem is when that gate closes, those 4,000 tons have to go somewhere. While a lot of people think this isn’t a problem because their garbage doesn’t go to that landfill, it does become their problem when that garbage needs somewhere to go and it has to go to the next closest landfill.”
To see the current landscape of solid waste and what future impact it might have, GNRC partnered with several local governments to create a solid waste master plan that covers 21 counties in the Middle Tennessee region, one of the first solid waste master plans ever undertaken in the state.
“One of the things we learned from studying these 21 counties is that there are 2.4 million tons of residential waste generated in this region every year, roughly six pounds per person per day,” Caldwell said. “That is a huge number, and for a long time, a lot of the larger companies could provide any waste services that were needed. However, the response to this number was ‘nobody can handle that volume.’ We have five landfills in this region, and when the largest one fills up, those other landfills are going to fill up that much quicker.”
As waste piles up, the problem could impact many more communities than just those who use Middle Point.
“This is quickly becoming a regional problem. It won’t be long before it becomes a statewide problem,” she said. “The question isn’t just if these landfills will be able to handle this volume today; it’s if they will be able to handle it in the next five years, and the answer is probably not. We also continue to bring in so many people every day, which is great for the economy and the area, but we also need to think about the problems we are creating by bringing more people in. I’m not being positive or negative; it’s just a fact.”
And the solution isn’t just as easy as building another landfill. Nashville recently contracted with the firm BDM Smith to do a zero-waste plan for the city to mitigate some of the 4,000 tons of waste that will have to find a new home after the closure of Middle Point.
According to the study, around half of the waste disposed by Metro Nashville is made of organic materials and paper, which are not necessarily high enough quality for the recycling markets but can be used for composting if properly diverted.
“We have to find alternatives, but yes there will always have to be a landfill,” Caldwell said. “In zero waste, zero is not zero. Metro Nashville’s zero is 70 percent of their disposal diverted to other uses. We are going to have to find more regional approaches. Landfills are expensive. We may need several areas to come together and share facilities such as recycling facilities, compost sites strategically located, one landfill, and construction and demolition recycling. We are having a whole conversation about materials and recycling. We are trying to look at garbage as materials instead of just trash. We need to look at it as valuable materials that could be used, reused, or even not used in the first place.”

Trash removal and recycling have long been one of the services enjoyed by municipal residents, services residents almost come to expect by virtue of living in the city limits. However, the face of waste disposal is changing.
One of the reasons for this is a new government policy enacted in China. Since the early 1980s, most of Europe and North America have inexpensively exported recyclables and waste to China for processing.
Faced with human health challenges and environmental issues, in 2018 the Chinese government enacted the Blue Sky policy – previously known as National Sword – banning the import of most waste to the country because of the public health issues created by their disposal of western plastics.
Other Southeast Asian countries that once imported waste and recyclables have also followed suit, including Vietnam and Thailand.
Additionally, countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia have returned recyclables and waste to their port of origin, particularly shipments of plastics which are a main point of contention. Many of these countries are under pressure from their own citizens who feel Southeast Asia has become a dumping ground for the West.
“Until this became a crisis, we didn’t listen, didn’t respond, or took it in stride and said it would solve itself,” Caldwell said. “I would hate to think of the number of tons of recyclables that are now stockpiled around this country. Plastics burn hot and burn long until they are gone. We have cardboard, tires, and plastics across this country waiting for someone to buy it, for China to come back. But people don’t realize China isn’t coming back.”
The U.S. produces 12 percent of the world’s municipal solid waste – three times the global average – but only contains 4 percent of the world’s population. This means that each U.S. resident generates an average of 234 pounds of waste a year.
Only 35 percent of this waste is recycled, contributing to the country’s growing solid waste problem. As a result of these international issues, some communities across Tennessee have taken steps such as suspending the recycling of certain materials like glass or cutting back certain services.
Caldwell said few people realize how specific the recycling market has gotten in the past few years.
“We have done ourselves a great injustice in this industry saying that recycling is free or that it make us rich,” she said. “That isn’t true and has never been true. We used to get paid for it, but now we have to pay to get rid of it. Markets have gotten so specific about what they can and can’t take, that if you try to recycle a peanut butter jar that isn’t thoroughly cleaned, that jar gets to the top of a load, and that load happens to be among the ones the operates open for quality control they can reject that whole load because of one peanut butter jar. As a result, there has been a split in the industry where people are either landfill folks or recycling folks. There is a balance there somewhere, but we are really at both extremes.”
Caldwell said new approaches to recycling or returning to recycling roots may be the step needed to mitigate the problem.
“As the markets continue to fall, we may have to go back to the foundation of what built recycling which is cardboard, mixed paper, plastics 1 and 2, and metals, including aluminum,” she said. “The biggest problem with our recyclables right now is that they are so dirty and contaminated they are of no value. If we can teach people proper disposal, we can get the quality back. Once we’ve got the quality back we can work on the quantity back.”

One of the issues surrounding solid waste has always been that it isn’t always the most pleasant of topics, despite its major impact as a health, public safety, transportation, and even economic concern.
“There is magic that happens at the curb,” Caldwell said. “I put my container out and it’s full; I come back home and it’s empty. We need to get people away from that way of thinking in order to make bigger decisions that are going to impact the larger community. There is a solid waste hierarchy that is an upside down triangle. It begins with reusing or reducing what you use, recycling, then composting, then waste to energy, and then landfill at the bottom. The landfill is the least preferred, but it’s the most used.”
Talking trash also often comes with concerns about public health and safety.
“For years we had the NIMBYs – the people who say ‘not in my backyard’ – and now we have NOTEs – the people who say ‘not over there either.’ We joke about it, but solid waste can be as emotional a topic as public schools,” Caldwell said. “Solid waste is a public health issue. A lot of people have pushed back on this because a lot of times people don’t realize solid waste is a public health issue until that waste starts to pile up. We’ve seen this in cities like Los Angeles. It usually becomes the government’s responsibility when someone has to clean up the mess.”
Caldwell said one of the things people often don’t see when it comes to solid waste is the industry’s potential as an economic engine and job creator.
“We have some communities that do not recycle because of the market. We have some communities that don’t want compost because it stinks,” she said. “What people don’t see is the economic and community development piece. Each material has to be collected, transported, disposed of or processed, and all of the sudden you need facilities, which will create local jobs instead of sending those jobs out with the waste.”
Solid waste can also serve as an unlikely community ambassador.
“Technically, by law, waste disposal is a county function and cities have a right to say not my problem or my responsibility,” Caldwell said. “When you do that, you have just eliminated those city employees who serve that function. Additionally, those workers who are contracted through a private service are not necessarily required to have the same background checks. Garbage collection is often expensive, but it is also the one place many people in your community get touched by someone who works with the city. You always hope that you don’t need fire or police, but you hope the garbage man shows up every week.”
Considering alternatives to the garbage truck may be another conversation cities need to have.
“Traffic is already at its peak and truck drivers are hard to come by because they would rather drive a truck for Amazon than haul trash,” she said. “Transportation by truck is very common, but often leads to the areas near these facilities becoming very congested. We have talked about rail, which is a little more expensive, and barge for construction debris or recycling. If we could put this stuff in a railcar that could handle four to five tractor trailer loads in one car, we would get a better turnaround.”

The creation of GRNC’s solid waste master plan has also shown the need for thinking ahead when it comes to where waste will go.
“What we’ve done can at least shine a light on the fact that everyone should have a plan,” Caldwell said. “That plan begins with the contract. At some point in the past, a city went out to bid, wrote, and signed a contract for waste disposal that lasts for a certain amount of time. The first things is knowing when that contract ends, because if your landfill fills up today and your contract has five years left on it, the problem is supposed to be the contractors to solve – but only for those remaining five years.”
There are several issues communities need to look at before they begin making decisions about the future of solid waste.
“The first thing you need to look at is collection and how your city does it,” Caldwell said. “Then you need to look at where that garbage goes and the disposal process. You then need to think about how many years is on your contract. That can either help you decide if you want to get out of the collection business, if you want to get into the collection business because your community is growing and expects this service, or if you want to contract it out and put in things to that contract like all workers have to be background-checked. When cities look at where they are today and where their project growth is within their city limits, they need to include solid waste as part of that smart growth.”
Caldwell said officials can also look at solid waste as a revenue generator.
“Solid waste can become a revenue source,” she said. “Private companies may pay to use municipal transfer stations for their garbage. Solid waste takes people and it takes resources. Even building the infrastructure and contracting with someone else to operate it can be a source of revenue. There is a lot of money in the garbage business because it’s not optional. There is an opportunity to provide face-to-face, door-to-door service to your community. There is an opportunity to build jobs. One thing I would also encourage is the full-cost accounting system for their solid waste system where the system breaks even.”
Caldwell said she and other development district officials are always ready to help cities figure out where their solid waste situation stands and where it needs to go. She can be reached at (615)-891-5867 or via email at