On a bright, unseasonably warm Saturday, Jessica Winston loaded her chocolate Lab, Coco, into the front seat of her Honda Civic, and boxes and bags of bottles, cans and paper into the backseat and trunk.
She was taking advantage of the spring temperatures to take Coco to a dog park — and in the meantime, she was dropping off recycling at the Bicentennial Mall convenience center.
She didn’t necessarily need to go to the drop-off center — her Sylvan Heights neighborhood has curbside recycling pickup — but she was going out anyway, and she had glass to recycle, detritus from a recent party, which can only be done at the drop-off points.
Winston grew up in a time when environmental consciousness was on the rise. She doesn’t think twice about walking or biking to run errands or turning off the lights when she leaves a room. She separates her recyclables, and — when she remembers — she takes them to the curb for Metro to pick up as part of the seven-year-old city recycling program.
“It’s not like I’m a total green freak or whatever. But I do what I can. It’s not hard if you think about it,” she said.
Two-thirds of Winston’s neighbors agree.
The most recent report from Metro Public Works to the Metro Council shows that 67 percent of Nashvillians within the Urban Services District participate at some level in curbside recycling. It’s a number the department would like to be higher, because unlike conventional landfill trash disposal, recycling pays off.
“Every ton of recycled materials provides the city with much-needed revenue and also saves Metro the cost of landfill disposal fees, so taxpayers are the ultimate winners when it comes to recycling,” Public Works Director Billy Lynch said.
To bring in that final third who don’t recycle, Nashville needs more people like Winston, willing to take a little time to either drag the 96-gallon bin to the road once a month or drive to a convenience center.
Wealthy homeowners recycle most
After all, if there were a picture of “most likely to recycle,” Winston would fit it: mid-20s, college-educated, earning what she calls a “solid entry-level salary.”
But the fact is, in Metro Nashville, Winston’s cohorts aren’t exactly the most recycle-friendly.
According to statistics from Metro Public Works, recycling Nashvillians are far more likely to be affluent, highly educated and homeowners — a demographic that skews older than Winston’s millennial generation, who at this point are much more likely to rent — as Winston does — and far from being in the top 10 percent of earners.
The best indicators of whether someone will recycle in Nashville are income and the related factors of homeownership, property value and education.
The census tracts with the highest level of curbside participation are also those with the highest percentage of homeownership, the highest land values and the highest levels of education.
Nashville’s swankiest neighborhoods — Green Hills, Belle Meade and other tony western locales — are not only outposts of wealth; they are frontiers of environmental consciousness. In those neighborhoods, with median incomes in the $80,000 range and where nearly everyone owns their own home, recycling tonnage is more than 100 times greater than it is in north Nashville, where the median income is less than $35,000 and where more people rent or live in public housing.
A Louisiana State University study posits that social factors make high-earners and homeowners more likely to participate in voluntary recycling programs.
“These more affluent neighborhoods tend to group together in terms of social structure,” the study says. “If one home recycles, then other neighbors will likely do so also; nobody wishes to appear to be anti-environment in an age where environmental issues are hot topics.”
The same study, though, shows Nashville to be a little unusual. Nationally, cities with a high number of renters tend to have a high level of participation. In fact, the LSU paper cites Nashville — a city where nearly 46 percent of the population rents — as an example. The study makes the obvious connection: Renters tend to be younger, and younger people tend to recycle more.
But, for some reason, a close look at Nashville doesn’t hold up the hypothesis.
The 10 Nashville census tracts with the highest levels of renting — including north Nashville, East Nashville, downtown and the Sylvan Heights area — rank near the bottom in total recycling tonnage.
It’s not that it’s easier to recycle in the wealthier, homeowner-heavy areas.
Every home within Metro’s Urban Services District has monthly curbside pickup available, and through the end of January, 56 percent of the total recyclable material for the fiscal year had come from curbside pickup.
Of course, apartment and condo dwellers have an added inconvenience not shared by their homeowning neighbors: They must drag their can to the curb, down stairs or elevators or across a parking lot, a trek homeowners don’t have to make. Renters also tend to be more transient and more likely to be from out-of-town and thus less likely to know when or how to recycle.
Program expanding, but when?
Public Works has a two-prong strategy to expand recycling in the city. First is education — showing up to neighborhood meetings to encourage participation, showing up at schools to teach kids to recycle, a practice they can share with their parents.
Second is literally expanding the reach of the recycling program.
Most residents of the General Services District have to recycle at the drop-off points or convenience centers scattered throughout Davidson County.
In October 2009, the city announced an expansion of curbside pickup to four ZIP codes outside of the USD — Brentwood, Antioch and Cane Ridge, Donelson and Old Hickory. This came on the heels of a six-month pilot program that expanded curbside pickup to Bellevue. More than 100 tons of recyclables were picked up in Bellevue during the trial period, and Mayor Karl Dean fulfilled a promise to expand the GSD curbside pickup if the Bellevue trial was successful.
Public Works would like to expand the curbside pickup even deeper into the county, but budget cuts in the past decade have impaired the department’s ability to do so.
In 2000, there were 541 waste management employees and more than 40 contractors signed on to work in disposal with Metro. In 2009, the department employed 363 people and had fewer than 20 contractors. Residential growth has slowed in Nashville over the last two years, but it’s still happening — and there’s still more than 5,000 miles of road to service. Expanding the program outside the USD — or making pickups more frequent than a once-monthly occurrence — takes bodies, trucks and money. Despite Dean’s public commitment to further greening the Music City, an expansion is
unlikely in another tight budget year.