Litter & Recycling

Tennessee’s litter problem

Carson Gitchell joins a cleanup at Porter’s Gap Overlook on the Mississippi River during Scenic Tennessee’s Pickin’ Up Tennessee tour in June 2013

Of all the things that threaten Tennessee’s scenic beauty, none is as universal (nor as universally deplored) as litter. Despite decades of education, thousands of cleanups and millions of tax dollars spent to address the issue, the latest reports say that more than 100 million pieces of trash remain on Tennessee’s roadways at any given time—much of which could have been readily and profitably recycled.

Since its founding in 1987, Scenic Tennessee has been advocating for fair and effective waste-reduction policies and practices that preserve scenic beauty while promoting a sustainable economy.

Such policies and practices include:

  • fees and incentives
    • refundable deposits on beverage containers
    • pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) policies that encourage recycling over landfilling
    • recycling fees on tires, lead-acid batteries and similar special-handling items
    • adjustments in landfill tipping fees to better reflect actual costs of waste disposal
  • policies to increase recycling rates and improve recycling quality
    • dual-stream curbside recycling (as opposed to commingled single-stream)
    • curbside compost (food waste) pickup where curbside recycling exists
    • compost collection sites at county convenience centers

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A Little Litter History

Littering emerged as a national issue in the years immediately following World War II, spurred by a surge in automobile sales, which more than doubled between 1945 and 1955 and triggered a corresponding increase in family and leisure travel; and the rise in disposable packaging, including throwaway beverage containers that were quickly taking the place of refillable, “return-for-deposit” glass bottles that had been the norm for decades.

The public response to widespread littering was vehement and sustained. Here are some key moments in the nation’s and Tennessee’s litter-fighting efforts over the last 75 years:

Filming the original “Tennessee Trash” PSA in 1976. Actor Irving Kane played the slob in the beat-up Corvair while country singer Ed Bruce sang “Ain’t no lower class than Tennessee Trash.” Photo from The Tennessean, Aug. 15, 1976.
  • In March 1953, Vermont’s dairy farmers demanded (and briefly won) a ban on “no-deposit, no-return” beer bottles.
  • In December 1953, Keep America Beautiful was incorporated by Coca-Cola, American Can and other beverage and packaging interests to “create a public awareness of litter and the individual’s responsibility for it.”
  • In 1955, Tennessee organized the first KAB affiliate in the nation, Keep Tennessee Beautiful. (The group went through several lulls, name changes and reorganizations before solidifying in 1984.)
  • 1n 1971, Oregon passed the first U.S. deposit-return law for beverage containers. Today there are roughly 60 such laws worldwide, including 10 in the United States (Oregon, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Iowa, New York, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii). These 10 states represent nearly half of all cans and bottles recycled annually in the U.S.
  • In 1981, Tennessee legislators rejected a proposed deposit-return law in favor of a small tax on beverage containers, with the money earmarked for county litter crews staffed by work-release inmates from the county jails. The program, known as the Tennessee litter grants program, was soon amended to provide funding to Keep Tennessee Beautiful.
  • In 2004, Scenic Tennessee launched the Tennessee Bottle Bill Project to support deposit-return legislation sponsored by Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Rep. Russell Johnson (R-Loudon).
  • Between its launch in 2004 and its termination in 2019, the Tennessee Bottle Bill Project organized more than 50 inventoried cleanups; sought and gained endorsements from 17 county commissions, the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs and dozens of smaller groups; toured the state twice to raise awareness (Cycling for Recycling in 2007 and Pickin’ Up Tennessee in 2013); and spurred two independent public-opinion polls (the University of Tennessee Social Science Research Institute Recycling Poll in 2008 and the Fall 2009 MTSU Poll) which showed more than 80 percent public support for a refundable deposit on glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers, with returns to independent redemption centers.
  • In 2018, the discovery of high concentrations of microplastics in the Tennessee River made headlines, including in the National Geographic magazine, and triggered new calls to address waste and recycling in Tennessee, including a proposed ban in Metro Nashville on single-use plastic bags.

Plastic bags from a Nashville restaurant supply swept into Mill Creek during flooding in early 2021. It wasn’t deliberate litter, but the incident heightened demands to limit the use of single-use plastic bags. Photo by Nanette Bahlinger.

  • In 2019, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation prohibiting local governments from banning or otherwise regulating the use of plastic carryout bags and other “auxiliary containers.”
  • In 2020, despite the 2019 preemption bill, Knoxville Republicans Sen. Richard Briggs and Rep. David Wright filed a bill prohibiting grocers and certain other businesses from providing free paper or plastic bags to customers.
  • In 2021, Sen. Briggs and Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) introduced the Tennessee CLEAN Act (Cleaner Landscapes for the Economy, Agriculture and Nature), part of a broad-based litter-reduction program launched by Tennessee Wildlife Federation. As part of that effort, the nonpartisan legislative research service TACIR (Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations) voted to undertake an in-depth study of the sources, impacts and possible remedies to littering in Tennessee.
  • Also in 2021, the Central Tennessee Regional Solid Waste Board recommended that the state reject a proposed expansion of Middle Point Landfill in Rutherford County, which accepts household waste from 34 middle Tennessee counties, including Davidson.
  • In 2022, U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-California) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), prepared to introduce a standalone national bottle bill.

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Pickin’ Up Tennessee (2013)

Scenic Tennessee’s Pickin’ Up Tennessee project was the first music-centered litter-awareness campaign in Tennessee since the popular “Tennessee Trash” ads of the 1970s—but with an important twist. Instead of focusing on the thing everyone hates about Tennessee—the litter—PUTN highlighted some of the things we love: Tennessee’s scenic beauty, its rich musical heritage, its welcoming communities.

Every year, Tennessee spends millions of dollars removing millions of pounds of litter from thousands of miles of roads and waterways and public spaces. And even though Scenic Tennessee believes there are more effective and long-lasting solutions, there’s something to be said for raising awareness. So when Tennessee’s Department of Transportation offered $1 million in grants to tackle litter “beyond routine maintenance,” we worked with students in UT’s SPEAK association (Students Protecting the Environment at Knoxville) to develop Pickin’ Up Tennessee.

Our project, which was awarded the maximum $100,000, featured a family of Chattanooga filmmakers who traveled the length and breadth of Tennessee for four weeks aboard a 32-foot motor home emblazoned with the message: “Love the land. Lose the litter.” By day, they filmed community litter cleanups, visited iconic scenic spots, toured off-the-beaten path treasures and recorded a sound-quilt of Tennessee music, from blues and bluegrass to gospel and mountain fiddle, performed by more than 120 volunteer musicians, singers and dancers. In the evenings, they camped at one of Tennessee’s award-winning state parks, where they’d blog about the day’s experiences and upload video to the PUTN YouTube page.

The tour launched, with much media encouragement, on June 1, 2013. For the rest of the month, Dave Porfiri and Linda Duvoisin, principals in the Chattanooga production company Mindflow Media, and their daughters Jane, 10, and Harlan, 8, served as roving ambassadors for a clean and sustainable Tennessee. Project coordinator Marge Davis tagged along with her Big Orange tent, and Mindflow Media’s technical crew joined the group at numerous stops along the way.

Some 2,800 miles, 500 volunteers, 67 videos, 38 songs, 23 cleanups and a ton of litter (literally, 2,000 pounds) later, the active portion of the project came to an end. But you can experience it for just $20 with a purchase of the three-disk PUTN DVD. Contact Scenic Tennessee for a copy.

The complete PUTN commemorative package includes 2 music CDs and 1 video DVD, plus 12 pages of liner notes. $20 includes shipping. Contact Marge Davis to request a copy.

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