Jun 16, 2023

Recycling in Memphis: How it works, what to know

Do you throw your aluminum cans, plastic containers and cardboard cereal boxes in your curbside recycling bin and never give them another thought?

How you recycle — specifically whether you recycle the right items and whether they’re dry and clean — determines whether they end up being made into car parts or going into a landfill.

According to Philip Davis, solid waste director for the city of Memphis, there are many misconceptions surrounding recycling in the city, first that the city doesn't recycle at all.

Actually, the city processes between 600-800 tons of materials per month, and that number would likely increase if more recyclable materials were placed in bins.

Davis spoke with The Commercial Appeal about some of the biggest problems people fall into when trying to recycle, what happens to your recycling once it's picked up on the curb and how to find out what materials are accepted.

"We put a lot of effort and a lot of resources into diversion of recyclable material, the stuff you put in your recycle cart into the (Materials Recovery Facility) instead of the landfill," Davis said. "It does cost money to recycle, but it's what a progressive city does."

In Memphis, you can recycle clean, empty and dry:

When putting multiple items in a cart, leave them loose. A plastic bag filled with aluminum cans will have to be rejected, Davis said, since the bag is non-recyclable, and it goes against safety standards for an employee to break open the bag.

Some items can be recycled elsewhere but can't be in Memphis, such as plastic bags. If in doubt, you can check the city of Memphis’ Waste Wizard application, found at the city's website.!rc-cpage=wizard_material_list.

You cannot recycle:

Once recycling goes into your curbside bin, it will be picked up by a separate truck from your garbage. In some instances, if non-recyclable materials are in the cart, it will be left by the recycling crew for garbage pickup.

If everything looks recyclable, the truck will pick it up, then take the materials to the Materials Recovery Facility on Farrisview Boulevard. The facility — known as the "MRF" — is city-owned property operated by a private contractor. There, materials are ejected from the truck and pushed by equipment onto a conveyer belt.

Machinery separates plastic from cardboard from glass, also using lasers to sort plastics by type. There are also manual sorters, who work to make sure there are no contaminated items in the mix.

"We do want people to be considerate that there are human beings touching, sorting this material," Davis said. "It is not uncommon for needle sticks and things like that, which is very terrifying for an employee."

Contaminated items can range from a container half full of food to a bottle that hasn't been washed properly.

"Your recycling shouldn't stink sitting out at the curb, because it should be relatively clean," Davis said. "It shouldn't have any residue. It should be clean materials, because these materials are commodities."

Once the items are sorted, they’re baled into cubes, then shipped to companies that purchase the bales for reuse. Aluminum, for example, can be used in car parts, plastic in carpet manufacturing and paper and cardboard for new cardboard boxes.

In some cases, it costs money for the city to recycle items. One of those is glass, which is heavy and costly to transport. Glass recycled in Memphis is delivered to Atlanta for reprocessing.

The city has three centers for drop-off recycling, located at:

Some items can be recycled by the city, but shouldn't go into a curbside bin. Those include tires, which have to be taken to a specific tire recycling facility and are thus picked up periodically by the city.

Another is vegetation and tree debris, which should be placed on the side of the road. When the city picks it up, it turns that debris into mulch, offering it free to the public twice a year at Shelby Farms and the Liberty Bowl.

Katherine Burgess covers government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.